One of the youngest gods on Mount Olympus, Hermes is quite easy to recognize in visual representations, due to his distinctive symbols. Also, some of the symbols of Hermes are among the most enduring from ancient Greek mythology, and can be traced in various modern usages to this day.
As messenger of the gods, Hermes needed speed, so one of his most common symbols is the pair of winged sandals – called talaria – which carry him to the world of the dead and back (he’s the only god who can travel freely between the world of the living and that of the dead, apart from the gods who reside in the underworld – Hades, Persephone, Thanatos and Hecate).
As Hermes was a protector of travelers, another of his symbols is the traveler’s cap, or sometimes a winged hat called petasus, which could make its owner invisible. (Although there is some confusion at this point, as this may be a mirror image of Hardes’ cap of invisibility, which Hermes was known to borrow from time to time.)
The most famous of the symbols of Hermes is his staff, the caduceus or kerykeion. This was a typical piece for a messenger (the goddess Iris also bears one). The caduceus of Hermes has a distinctive design, either two snakes that coil around the staff, or sometimes a top with the horns of a bull, in an image very similar to what we use today to depict the astrological sign of the Taurus. The caduceus is sometimes adorned with wings, as many of the symbols of Hermes are.
From the Roman name for Hermes, Mercury, the caduceus began to symbolize the planet Mercury and the chemical element with the same name, thus becoming a very common symbol in alchemy. As Hermes was the god of merchants and traders, the caduceus is a common representation for trade and commercial exploits, and has been used as such, with remarkable consistency, from ancient times to this day. By association with the staff of Asclepius – which has a single snake – the caduceus began to be used in modern times as a symbol of various medical enterprises, most notably being used as the insignia for the US Army medical corps.
The caduceus, symbol of Hermes, used as insignia for the US Army Medical Corps.
The specialists and purists complained of this distortion of the symbol of Hermes, but in fact, there may be an ancient connection between the staff of Hermes and that of Asclepius: in one myth, Hermes created the first lyre, from a tortoise shell. Apollo was fascinated by the new instrument, so he traded his caduceus for the lyre. Apollo had long been associated with snakes, as symbols of regeneration and healing, and Asklepios would inherit this association as his son – so both Hermes and Asklepios inherited the snake symbol for Apollo.
Other common symbols of Hermes are a purse or a bag, indicating either traders or thieves, a rooster, a tortoise, from which he shaped the first lyre, or a rabbit, for its speed. Among the less common symbols, we should mention the hawk and the strawberry, as well as the shepherd’s pipe, which Hermes shares with his son, Pan.