The Divine Doublet: Hermes and Odysseus

His story starts in a cave far from the company of the blessed gods in the care of a daughter of the Titan Atlas. His story often ends in a cave too. In between, he slays a giant shepherd with an unusual number of eyes, is connected with the slaughter of sacred cows, smells the aroma of broiling steak but does not partake, and is involved in meals with appropriate shares for each honored guest and the gods. He dines with the goddess Kalypsō. He is a liar, a psychopomp, and polytropos. He knows the gleaming tusks of a boar.

Are we talking about Hermes, son of Zeus? Or Odysseus, son of Laertes? It seems as if what one does the other doubles. Our effort here is to explore the parallel lives of the Argeiphontes and his great-grandson, to wonder who is the double of whom, and to notice the place where the parallel lives almost cross.

Caves in the Beginning

According to the Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes[1], Maia, the mother of Hermes, was a “rich-tressed [euplokamos] nymph, …a shy goddess,  for she avoided the company of the blessed gods, and lived within a deep, shady cave” (HH4.4–6) on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. She was a daughter of the Titan Atlas (Odyssey 1.14)[2].

Queen Kalypsō, the consort of Odysseus, was a nymph with braided tresses [euplokamos] (Odyssey 5.57–58), who lived on Aeaea, a “sea-girt island … in the very middle of the sea” (Odyssey 1.50). Like Maia, she lived in a cave, described in Odyssey 5.57–74 when Hermes arrives. Kalypsō, too, was a daughter of Atlas (Odyssey 1.52).

Such are the places where the stories begin for Hermes in the Homeric Hymn (4) in his honor, and for Odysseus in Scroll 5 of his epic. (Prior to Scroll 5 the Odyssey is mostly about Odysseus’ son Telemachus.)

Calpyso and Odysseus

Caves at the End

Hermes is born in a high-roofed cave (HH4 line 7) and later we find at the end of Odysseus’ story that Hermes went “down into the dark abode of death” [=Hādēs] (Odyssey 24.10).

Hermes conducts souls to Hades

One of  Odysseus’ stories, that of Circe, starts in another cave where he stores the boats (Odyssey 10.424 ) and he too ends up going to the dark abode of death. (Scroll 11).

They both lead men there. (Although Odysseus does return with his.) Hermes and Odysseus both rise like Solar Deities, stroll across the world in the light and then descend into (death and) darkness again. The cows of Helios/Apollo (of which more below) reinforce the similar solar themes in their stories.

Slaying a Giant

Did you ever wonder about baby Hermes’ epithet “Argeiphontes” (HH4.73, 84, 294, 387, 414)[3]? It means “The Slayer of Argos,” Argos Panoptēs to be specific. He was an Argive giant with a hundred eyes, whom Hermes lulled to sleep with music and then insured those eyes never saw the light of day again. (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.1.3). [4]

Hermes slaying Argos

In the Odyssey, Odysseus tells his Phaeacian audience about how he defeated the one-eyed, gigantic Cyclops Polyphemus. After several hefty helping of unmixed wine, and a heated olivewood stake, that giant never saw the light again either. (Odyssey 9. 375–395)

Odysseus and his men slay Polyphemus

Giants are pretty common in Greek myth. They are slain by gods and men, but giants with an unusual number of eyes are rare, so Hermes and Odysseus’ twin exploits are also rare.

Dining on Divine Cattle, and Receiving a Portion

Hermes kriophorosBoth the god and the hero considered dining on divine cattle. Neither did so but for oddly different reasons: Hermes to prove he wasn’t mortal and Odysseus because it was forbidden for a mortal to do so. Unusually for a god Hermes longed for the meat, while unusually for a man Odysseus did not want to eat the divine meat.

When he has killed the cattle that he has stolen, Hermes apportions the meat: “Next glad-hearted Hermes dragged the rich meats he had prepared and put them on a smooth, flat stone, and divided them into twelve portions distributed by lot, making each portion wholly honorable.” (HH4 127–129)

But: “Then glorious Hermes longed for the sacrificial meat, for the sweet savour wearied him, god though he was; nevertheless his proud heart was not prevailed upon to devour the flesh, although he greatly desired.” (HH4 130–134).  H. G. Evelyn-White comments on these lines from the Hymn: “Gemoll explains that Hermes, having offered all the meat as sacrifice to the Twelve Gods, remembers that he himself as one of them must be content with the savour instead of the substance of the sacrifice.[5] Can it be that by eating he would have forfeited the position he claimed as one of the Twelve Gods? [6]

When Odysseus awoke from one of his nap on the island of Helios his men had already sacrificed cattle of Helios to the gods and begun feasting. “…as I drew near I began to smell hot roast meat” (Odyssey 12.369). But having been forewarned by Circe (Odyssey 11.105–114), he would not participate.

It is as if Odysseus is thinking like a god, and Hermes like a mortal man enslaved by his stomach.

But Odysseus is able to eat meat later while Hermes receives a portion appropriate to a god, when Odysseus’ servant Eumaios is doing the honors of the house by serving his master’s servants and guest (the lying Cretan) and he “gives everyone his share. He made seven portions; [435] one of these he set apart for Hermes, the son of Maia and the nymphs, praying to them as he did so; the others he dealt out to the men man by man. He gave (the Cretan guest) some slices cut lengthways down the loin as a mark of especial honor.” (Odyssey 14. 433-439)

Dining with a Goddess

The most compelling parallel between Hermes and Odysseus comes in Odyssey Scroll 5:

[85] Kalypsō, shining among goddesses, gave Hermes a seat and said: “Why have you come to see me, Hermes—honored, and ever welcome—for you do not visit me often? Say what you want; I will do it for you at once [90] if I can, and if it can be done at all; but come inside, and let me set refreshment before you.” As she spoke she drew a table loaded with ambrosia beside him and mixed him some red nectar, so Hermes ate and drank [95] till he had had enough…

[135] “I [= Kalypsō] got fond of him [= Odysseus] and cherished him and had set my heart on making him immortal…” …

…she [= Kalypsō] led the way rapidly before him, and Odysseus followed in her steps; so the pair, goddess and man, went on and on till they came to Kalypsō’s cave, [195] where he took the seat that Hermes had just left. The nymph set before him all kinds of food to eat and drink, of the kind that mortals consume; but she herself sat opposite godlike Odysseus, and her maids brought ambrosia and nectar for herself, [200] and they laid their hands on the good things that were before them.”

Odyssey 5.85–95, 135–136, 193–200

As Jacqui pointed out in “Divine Dopplegänger” it is almost as if Odysseus is taking Hermes’ place metaphorically.

He is a Liar

In the Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes, Hermes “squeezed head and hands and feet together in a small space, like a new born child seeking sweet sleep”…“the Cyllenian, tried to deceive the God of the Silver Bow” (HH4 240, 318), that is, his half-brother Apollo. And “far-working Apollo laughed softly and said to him: ‘O rogue, deceiver.. .’” (HH4 281–282). Later in the hymn, they take the debate over the stolen cattle to Olympus where “Zeus laughed out loud to see his evil-plotting child well and cunningly denying guilt.” (HH4 389–390) His own mother calls Hermes a rogue! (HH4 155)

Like Hermes telling a series of lies pretending he is an innocent baby, Odysseus tells a series of lies to his servants and family pretending he is a Cretan. To his faithful servant Eumaios he claims, “I say solemnly that I was born and raised in Crete, the place that reached far and wide; [200] my father was a well-to-do man,” (Odyssey 14.199–200), a story very similar to Eumaios’ own history. But it is still a lie that Eumaios passes on to Odysseus’ son (16.60). When Odysseus’ wife asks who he is he again tells a very long version of being from Crete, but this time with a different genealogy! (Odyssey 19.172ff.)

He told another rather lengthy variation on this lie to his patroness Athena “Resourceful great Odysseus was glad at finding himself, as Athena told him, in his own country, and he began to answer, but he did not speak the truth [alēthēs] and made up a lying story [255] in the instinctive wiliness of his mind [noos]. “I heard of Ithaca,” said he, “when I was in Crete …” (Odyssey 13.250–267)

Not to be fooled, in response Athena says, “He must be indeed a shifty lying character,” said she, “who could surpass you in all manner of craft [kerdos]… full of guile, unwearying in deceit [atē], [295] can you not drop your tricks and your instinctive falsehood…?” (Odyssey 13.290–293)

Odysseus and Athena

He Knows the Gleaming Tusks of a Boar  

“So he spake. And from heaven father Zeus himself gave confirmation to his words, and commanded that glorious Hermes should be lord over all birds of omen and grim-eyed lions, and boars with gleaming tusks” (HH4 568a–569)

Being the god of “boars with gleaming tusks” might seem a minor thing for Hermes. It is a major thing for heroes like Odysseus who have to deal with boars, their tusks, and gashes to vital body parts. The complexity and significance of this theme, exemplified by Adonis’ death and a hero’s “thigh,” are beyond the scope of this paper. But let’s see how this theme affected Odysseus’ story.

In the Iliad, “Meriones found a bow and quiver for Odysseus, and on his head he set a leather helmet that was lined with a strong plaiting of leather thongs, while on the outside it was thickly studded with boar’s teeth,[7]” (Iliad 10.260–264)

In the Odyssey, “Odysseus was the first to raise his spear and try to drive it into the brute, but the boar was too quick for him, and charged him sideways, ripping him [450] above the knee with a gash that tore deep” (Odyssey 19. 448–451)

However, Odysseus also proves his lordship over the boar: “As for the boar, Odysseus hit him on the right shoulder, and the point of the spear went right through him, so that he fell groaning in the dust until the life went out of him.”    

Odysseus woulded by th eboar


So we see parallel lives. Hermes first appears in his hymn in the Cyllenian Cave, Odysseus in Kalypsō’s. Hermes takes the suitors to Hādēs, Odysseus his men. They both defeat giants with unusual numbers of eyes. Neither eats divine cattle, but both receive an appropriate portion of the same feast, and both dine with Kalypsō. They have mastership over boars. They are both notorious for knowing how to tell a lie. Could it be because Hermes is the great-grandfather of Odysseus (Hermes>Autolykos>Antiklea>Odysseus) and he is following in his great-grandfather’s footsteps? (Hyginus, Fabulae 201)[8] But maybe that is wrong. If the Odyssey was composed 8th–7th century BCE and the Hymn in the 7th–6th century BCE,[9] would that make Hermes the Divine Doublet of Odysseus?


[1] Homeric Hymn (4) to Hermes, hereinafter abbreviated to HH4.
English text: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Includes Evelyn-White’s notes. Online at Perseus.

[2] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor. 2018.12.12. Available online at CHS:.
Homeric Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power
Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies

[3]  The epithet is also applied to him in the Odyssey and in other texts.

[4]  Apollodorus The Library, with an English Translation by  Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer’s notes. Online at Perseus.
To be fair there is another perspective on the Argive hero Argus Panoptēs, who killed monsters in his own right: “He had eyes in the whole of his body, and being exceedingly strong he killed the bull that ravaged Arcadia and clad himself in its hide; and when a satyr wronged the Arcadians and robbed them of their cattle, Argus withstood and killed him. It is said, too, that Echidna, daughter of Tartarus and Earth, who used to carry off passers-by, was caught asleep and slain by Argus. He also avenged the murder of Apis by putting the guilty to death.” Apollodorus The Library 2.1.2 It was after this that, when Io had been turned into a cow Hera “set Argus the All-seeing to guard it.” (2.1.3)

[5]  This is totally off topic, but I find it ironic that triple-bodied Geryon should question his birthright to be immortal and ageless (Stesichorus, Geryoneis Fragment S12) and that Hermes with similar epithets like Trismegistus and Triphales should similarly question his birthright.

[6] Footnote 7 to Evelyn-White’s translation.

[7] Further, at Iliad 10.266 “This helmet had been stolen by Autolykos”: Autolykos was the son of Hermes, and the grandfather of Odysseus (Odyssey 19.394ff).

[8]  Hyginus Fabulae, Translated by Mary Grant. University of Kansas Publications in Humanistic Studies, no. 34. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1960.  Online at

[9] Aaron J. Atsma

Image credits

Tako Hajo Jelgersma: Hermes’ message to Calypso; Calypso seated at a table in her palace, three nymphs around her, Hermes standing at left giving her the message from Zeus; from an album of 51 leaves depicting scenes from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license © The Trustees of the British Museum

van Balen, Hendrick: Odysseus as guest at the nymph Calypso, c 1616. Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After John Flaxman: Mercury Conducting the Souls of the Suitors to the Infernal Regions
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) Tate

Roscher, Wilhelm Heinrich, 1890: Drawing of an image from a 5th century BCE Athenian red figure vase depicting Hermes slaying the giant Argus Panoptes.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rider Painter: Odysseus and his men blinding Polyphemus, Laconian black-figure cup, 565–560 BCE, Cabinet des Médailles.
Bibi Saint-Pol, photo. public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Museo Barraco Hermes Kriophoros , Lalupa (photo)
Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tako Hajo Jelgersma: Pallas Athena appearing to Ulysses. from an album of 51 leaves depicting scenes from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. 1717–1795.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license © The Trustees of the British Museum

Göttingen: Heinrich Dieterich, 1801-5 and Stuttgart: J G Cotta, 1821 Odysseus wounded by the boar, plate 4 of Heft II of “Homer nach Antiken gezeichnet”,  Etching and engraving
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license © The Trustees of the British Museum

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons or Flickr, at the time of publication on this website.
Images accessed April 2019.

Bill Moulton is a long-time participant in the Kosmos Society. He recently designed and practiced a presentation on Classical reception called “A Greek Mythology Walking-Tour of Petersburg”. When he and a few friends tested out the program recently, he got two job offers out of it the next day.

He would like to thank Jacqui Donlon for being the inspiration for this piece, and other participants in the forums for their insights.