‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’
So the young thief asks as he hides in the long grass beneath a poacher’s moon. This is his first cattle raid, and so his brother has given him just one task: keep watch on the farmhouse. But still the young thief fidgets, his fingers twitch and stretch. He plays with the pendant about his neck, the one his brother whittled for him: two snakes twined about a wand.
‘It is the symbol of a god, and it will bring you luck.’ That’s what his brother promised as he tied the pendant about the young thief’s neck. Then he was gone, stealing into the night to break into the pastures.
‘It will bring you luck.’
But what god would bring luck to thieves?
It is the Muses that come to answer his question. That breeze rushing through the long grass, it is their singing, their dancing, their playing of the lyre and the flute.
‘Who would bring a young thief luck?’ they whisper. ‘None other than the patron of thieves, Hermes, messenger of the Gods.’
The Muses start their song with a familiar motif: Zeus’s infidelity.
The father of gods and men has caught sight of a young girl – fair Io – daydreaming on temple steps. Her mother is an Oceanid, a sea nymph, and Io has inherited that divine beauty. Her eyes share the twinkle of sunlight catching on a cresting wave. Her fingers are the warmth of Mediterranean sands.
When Zeus takes her into his embrace, Io believes their love will be like the marriage of sea and coast: the endlessness of waves kissing the shoreline.
She is wrong.
For Io is not merely a princess, but a priestess of Hera, and so the insult to the Queen of the Gods is twofold. Not merely adultery, but apostasy.
Hera contrives a fitting punishment. She causes the young girl to shift, to bend, to warp her form like quicksilver, till those fingers close into hooves, and those eyes stain to a depthless black. Io is a maiden no longer, but a white heifer.
A lifetime as Hera’s sacred animal, that will teach the princess devotion.
Of course, Io’s new form does little to dampen Zeus’s desires. Just as the heifer is to Hera, so the bull is to the Father of Gods and Men – he has spent many days prowling field and dale as a bullock, great ivory horns bent into the hint of a crown.
But there is a complication. Hera has put Io out to pasture in her sacred fields, and placed the sanctuary under the guard of Argus the giant.
The Queen of the Gods has found herself a rancher.
Zeus must find himself a rustler.
Hermes, Messenger of the Gods, is never still. Even standing to attention upon the bronze floored hall of Olympus, he continues to fidget. The wings upon his sandals twitch and stretch.
Others, be they deathless or mortal – they’re slow to move, slow to think, slow to explain. Zeus has barely even made it past his justifications of adultery before Hermes understands the heist – is already planning the heist.
The exits. The entrances. The get-away and timings. And of course, the score.
This is not Hermes’s first cattle-raid. He was still in swaddling clothes when he slipped into the pastures of Apollo and relieved the archer god of his sacred oxen.
What is it that makes him so natural a thief? Exactly what makes him so talented a messenger. Distance is meaningless to Hermes; rolling fields, towering peaks – they pleat like fabric beneath the god’s feet, till his journeys are little more than a single step. It is the same for every threshold. He passes through doors by widening a keyhole like a plucked stitch. He ignores fences by stretching the gaps between posts like threadbare cloth.
Hera’s sanctuary might as well be an open meadow.
But breaking in is only half the task; even under a poacher’s moon, there is no hiding from her rancher. Argus’s eyes see everything – a thousand of them like the spots on a bird’s cape – ever-peering, ever-glancing, ever-staring.
His sight is perfect. His vision panoramic. His watch endless. When the giant blinks, it is never all at once, but like a great wave that rolls from head to toe.
Not even Hermes could steal under such scrutiny. So the god must turn to the next of his thieves’ tools: music.
When Apollo finally tracked Hermes down for the theft of his oxen, the only way the Messenger of the Gods could mollify the archer was with music – the first notes of the tortoiseshell lyre that would become Apollo’s hallmark.
With Argus, it is the panpipes. The giant’s eyes may be infallible, but his ears are easily charmed; as soon as Hermes brings the pipes to his lips, Argus’s lumbering charge begins to slow. His pupils go wide, his gazes lose focus, and Hermes lulls him to sleep.
Great snores fill Hera’s sanctuary like rolling thunder.
But even in slumber, Argus remains at guard. His eyes remain open, the night sky reflected in a thousand beads of glass. And when Hermes takes a step, when he reaches out a hand to take Io’s bridle, not even the soft spell of the panpipes is enough to contain the giant.
Argus charges once again, and his roar is a thunderclap. Sound enough to shatter stone.
Hermes has no choice then; he must turn to the last of his thieves’ tools.
The slingshot slides into his hands all by itself, a stone heavy in its pouch.
The Muses bring their song to a close with the heavy crash of Argus’s death. But the young thief hears another sound: barking and then a scream.
A guard dog has found his brother out there in the night. And now there is shouting from the farmhouse too. The door swings open, the farmer silhouetted by firelight. A blade glints in his hands.
The young thief does not have Hermes’s talents. He cannot charm with music. He cannot pleat distance till his journeys are little more than single step.
But he does have a slingshot.
It slides into his hands all by itself, a stone heavy in its pouch.
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse