Hermes, god of thieves and messenger of Zeus, was full of trickery from the start. His mother, the shy nymph, Maia, bore him secretly in a deep cave, but since the baby god could walk and talk from his birth, she could not hide him long. In fact, when she laid him in the cradle and turned away to let him sleep, he slipped out behind her back and stole to the cave entrance with mischief in his mind. In the grass outside the gateway he found a great tortoise with a spotted shell and seized on it to play with. He took the shell and from it made a framework, stretching seven strings of sheep- gut upon it. Thus he constructed a new and beautiful instrument: a lyre, a kind of harp, and began to play. It sounded marvellous, and as he plucked the strings, he sang to it stories of his mother and of his father, Zeus, and of the cave where he was born and the nymphs that served them there. Presently, when Hermes tired of his new toy, he laid it in his cradle and slipped forth again to get into some real mischief.
Just as the sun was going down, he found a mountain side where a great herd of snow-white cattle grazed, the cattle of the sun. Fifty of these the baby god of thieves separated from the herd and began to drive away, down past the sandy river bed to the hard ground beyond, where it would be more difficult to trace their footprints. To make all safe, with much shouting and running, he turned the cattle and forced them to walk backwards through the sandy place So that Apollo might think they were coming to, not going from, their pasture. To conceal his own footprints from the god, he tied branches, leaves and all, under his feet, making great, shuffling tracks, as though someone had been sweeping the sand with a broom.
In spite of all his cunning he did not get away unseen, for an old man working in a vineyard looked up in wonder as the baby god came past. Hermes had his hands full at the time. He was hurrying to get the cattle away before the sun found out they were gone. Consequently he merely called out to the man and promised him good crops if he would keep silent. Then he raced off after the cattle, letting the old man think what he would.
Hermes drove the herd to a distant meadow by a river and penned them there. He killed two of them in sacrifice to the twelve great gods of Olympus, thinking perhaps that before very long he might be in trouble and need the Olympians’ aid. Then he hurried back to his home, stole silently into the hall, and jumped into his cradle. There he covered himself up and tried to look like an innocent little baby, though with the left hand he still kept fingering his lyre beneath the clothes.
When the dawn came, Apollo rose, went to the mountain side as his custom was, and looked down on his cattle. Immediately he noticed the theft and called down to a poor old man who was driving his Ox to pasture, asking if he had noticed anything.
“I was working in my vineyard yesterday,” said the old man, “when I saw a strange sight. A little child, a baby, with a long staff in his hand was driving away a herd of cattle, running from side to side and forcing them to walk backwards with their heads toward him.”
It is hard to conceal things from Apollo because he is the god of prophecy, and immediately he knew about Hermes and who he was, secret as his birth had been. As for tracing the cattle, that was a different matter. The tracks went not only backwards; they went up and down and from side to side, while over all were great sweeping marks. Further along, on the hard ground, there were simply no traces at all. Apollo gave up looking for them. Instead he made off for Maia’s cave to confront the baby thief.
Hermes snuggled down inside the bedclothes when he saw Apollo coming, and he hunched himself together as best he could, trying to look very tiny indeed. This was hard for him, since he had grown considerably in his first day. He could not deceive Apollo, who came up to the cradle, demanding angrily, “Where are my cattle, you thief? Tell me at once what you have done with them, or I will cast you down into darkness forever, and you can see how you like thieving there.”
Hermes peeped up at him over the edge of the bedclothes and said in a weak little voice, “Why are you shouting at me about cattle? I am just a poor little baby. The only things I care about are good milk and warm baths and soft wrappings. I cannot even walk. As for your cattle, wherever they are, they certainly are not here. I swear it by Zeus, the father of of us both.”
He looked up at Apollo with such a wide and innocent smile that the god could not help laughing, but he was still angry all the same. He picked up the child from the cradle, coverings and all, and shook him. All he got from that was to find out that Hermes was quick and slippery as an eel and could perfectly well stand on his own feet if he chose. At last Apollo, seeing there was nothing to be done with him, took him by the hand and dragged him of to the throne of Zeus upon Olympus. Here the father of gods had to smile as he saw the two of them, the angry god and the curly-haired, blue-eyed child. Hermes stood before his throne and swore in an innocent, baby voice that the cattle had never come near his house, asking indignantly how an infant could be connected with cattle stealing anyway. Zeus laughed, but he knew perfectly well the truth of the affair, and he bade Hermes go immediately and show Apollo where the cattle lay hid. He meant to have no more nonsense, and Hermes saw that he must be obeyed.
Apollo looked down on the hidden meadow to which the child had led him, and saw his great white cattle contentedly feeding there. Then as his eye fell on the hides of the two slaughtered animals stiffening on a rock, he blazed with anger. “You shall pay for this,” he said to Hermes, turning on him threateningly.
This time the boy was really frightened and fell back a foot or two, looking uneasily from one side to the other, but he found no escape. “Wait a moment,” he begged hastily. “Wait, listen, I have something for you,” and he pulled out his lyre. As the god Apollo heard the wonderful notes and perceived how beautifully they would blend with the voice in song, he was amazed and his anger quite fell from him.
“Where did you get this wonderful thing?” he asked. “Give it me, give it me. Keep my fifty cattle, and I will give you a golden staff in addition for you to herd them with. It seems to me I have to have this and to make music for rich feasts and lovely dances. With this I will comfort sorrow, relive past glories, and melt the heart of stone. I think it will sing of itself for me the moment I touch it, for it knows already that it is mine.”
“I will gladly give you the lyre,” said the son of Maia, “and take your cattle and your golden wand in return. I will be friends with you as a brother ought to be. From now on I swear that I will never steal anything of yours.”
Thus the two became friends, and from that time forward Apollo enchanted the gods of Olympus with the glorious music of his lyre. But Hermes drives the white cattle of the sun across the sky on a windy day, and with his golden rod, around which he has twined two snakes, he charms the eyes of men to sleep and deceives them with dreams and visions. Yet Hermes is good for men also, since he rests and heals them with sleep. Moreover he bears the messages of Zeus, and with these he must often do men service.