The three great divine families

Authored by: Robin Hard

The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  December  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138652606
eBook ISBN: 9781315624136
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Chapter 3 surveys the three great divine families in Hesiod’s genealogical scheme, the families founded by Earth through children borne to her self-generated sons Sky (Ouranos) and Sea (Pontos), and the family of Night. The first part of the chapter surveys families founded by the Titans, the main children of Earth and Sky. The other families and the deities born into them are then considered in greater detail, above all the family of Oceanos and Tethys, who were the parents of the Ocean-nymphs and Rivers, that of Hyperion and Theia, whose family accounted for the origin of the sun-god Helios, the moon-goddess Selene, and the dawn-goddess Eos, and that of Iapetos and Clymene, the parents of Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, and Menoitios. The second part of the chapter surveys the great family founded by Earth through children conceived to Sea (Pontos), which consisted partly of sea-gods, sea-nymphs, and winged aerial beings, and partly of monsters who needed be separated genealogically from the higher gods. The third part of the chapter is devoted to the family of Night, which consisted mainly of personifications of dark and sinister forces.

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The three great divine families

As was explained in the previous chapter (see p. 21–2), there were three great divine families in Hesiod’s genealogical scheme: the two families that were founded by Earth through children whom she conceived to her two self-generated sons, Ouranos (or Sky) and Pontos (or Sea), and the family of Night, which consisted mainly of beings representing dark forces in the world whom she generated from herself. Taken together, these families provide an inventory of much of the divine population, although any proper consideration of the Olympian deities will be delayed until a later stage; and there are local or minor divine beings who fall outside the scheme, some of whom will be discussed in Chapter 9. In our survey of them, we will start with the most exalted, the family of Earth and Sky that was formed from the descendants of the Titans, before continuing on to that of Earth and Sea, which consisted mainly of sea-beings and monsters, and concluding with the dismal family of Night.

The families founded by the Titans, the main children of Earth and Sky

The families of the Titans can be divided into two main categories, those that account for the origin of the Olympian deities and other beings associated with the new order, and those that are made up primarily of deities who were connected with the natural world. Cronos and Rhea were the progenitors, either as parents or grandparents, of all the great Olympian deities (with one possible exception), while Coios and Phoibe were grandparents of two of them, Apollo, and Artemis, through their daughter Leto. Themis and Mnemosyne for their part bore some groups of lesser female deities to Zeus. As for the Titans whose families belong to the second category, Oceanos and Tethys brought forth offspring connected with the waters of the world, sea-nymphs, and others, as would be expected, while Hyperion and Theia founded a family that consisted primarily of deities of the sky above, including the main luminaries of the heavens. The two remaining families were founded by Titans who married outside the circle of their sisters, namely Creios, who fathered three sons to serve as husbands for greater goddesses of Titan descent, and Iapetos, who fathered Atlas, who held up the sky, and Prometheus and Iapetos, two opponents of Zeus.

Cronos and Rhea and the origin of the Olympian deities

Cronos and Rhea were the parents of the Olympian deities of the first generation, namely Zeus, who displaced Cronos as lord of the universe, Poseidon, who became the great god of the sea, Hades, who became the god of the Underworld and ruler of the dead, Hera, the goddess of marriage and consort of Zeus, and the corn-goddess Demeter, and Hestia, goddess of the hearth.

With the possible exception of Aphrodite, if she was born as in Hesiod’s account described above (see p. 27), all the other great Olympian deities were grandchildren of Cronos and Rhea, all being children of Zeus, unless Hera brought Hephaistos to birth as a child of her very own. Most were born in the period that immediately followed Zeus’s rise to power, but two of them, Hermes and Dionysos, were born later during the heroic era; for a full discussion, see p. 70ff.

Coios and Phoibe, the grandparents of Apollo, Artemis, and Hecate

The Titans Coios and Phoibe, who were both thoroughly obscure figures, were remembered above all for having been the parents of the goddess LETO, who bore Artemis and Apollo to Zeus, as her twin children (see further on p. 134). Hesiod credits them with a further daughter, ASTERIE, who married Perses, a son of the Titan Creios (see p. 46), and bore the goddess Hecate to him, who is thus classed as a first cousin of Artemis. 1 As we will see later (p. 136), Asterie was sometimes drawn into the story of the birth of Artemis and Apollo, and had a mythical tale of her own in that connection; it is doubtless significant that Asterie was sometimes said to have been the original name of their birthplace, the island of Delos.

In Hesiod’s scheme HECATE, who came to be thought of as a rather sinister goddess, is thus classed as a first cousin of Artemis. Although the two goddesses were in fact quite frequently identified from the classical period onwards, they were of a very different character in most respects and plainly of separate origin, Hecate being a goddess who was associated, at least in her final form, with magic and ghosts and the pathways of the night. It has commonly been accepted (though not without question) that she originated in Caria in the south-western corner of Asia Minor; many related place names can be found in that area, and her most important sanctuary was located there, at Lagaria. If she was indeed of Asian origin, she was plainly introduced to Greece at an early period, certainly by the seventh century bc since she is mentioned in both the Theogony and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Hesiod praises her at some length and with evident personal enthusiasm as a universal goddess. He declares that she bestows all manner of gifts on worshippers who enjoy her favour, such as wealth, success at the games, skill in horsemanship, victory in war, and good counsel; and he states that Zeus granted her exceptional privileges in spite of her Titan birth, in both heaven and on earth and at sea. The only realm to be left out of account is the Underworld, the very realm that is most closely associated with her in the later tradition. Precisely because the poet makes her the special focus of his religious ardour, his ‘hymn to Hecate’, as it has been called, throws little light on the individual character of the goddess. 2 Although we have little definite evidence on the nature of her cult in early times, there is reason to think that she was originally honoured in Asia Minor as a major goddess in official cult, rather than as a deity who was primarily concerned with the uncanny and magical. If she had no concern at all for such matters, however, it is hard to understand why she should have developed into the goddess who is familiar to us from classical and later accounts in Greece. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (probably late seventh century bc) links her to Persephone in a way that suggests that she already had Underworld connections at the time of its composition. For the poem recounts that she heard Persephone cry out as she was being abducted by Hades and told Demeter of this, and that when Persephone later returned to visit her mother, Hecate embraced her and became her attendant and companion from that time onwards. 3 It is clear from references in tragedy that Hecate was associated with spooks and the pathways of the night by the classical period at any rate. 4

In her capacity as queen of ghosts, Hecate was also the goddess of pathways (Enodios) and of crossroads (hence her title of Trioditios, ‘she of the three ways’), for crossroads were regarded as great centres of ghostly and magical activity then, as in modern folklore. It is apparently for that reason that Hecate’s statues often represent her in triple form, so that she may look simultaneously down all the roads that meet at the point where she is standing. She would send spooks up into the world at night, or would appear in her own right, especially at crossroads under the dim light of the moon, to roam the pathways at the head of a crew of ghosts. Her retinue, the host of Hecate, was made up of shades of the restless dead who had died prematurely or violently, or who had received no proper burial. Since she would also be accompanied by loud-barking daimonic dogs, her passage bears a resemblance to the ‘Wild Hunt’ of Western European folklore. The goddess and her night-wandering companions might inflict madness or epilepsy on mortals who encountered them and was certainly a source of night-terrors and bad dreams. To propitiate Hecate and her host, and so keep them at a safe distance, the Greeks would leave offerings for them at crossroads at the turn of the month; known as ‘Hecate’s suppers’ (deipna Hekatēs; or simply Hecateia), these consisted of cakes, eggs, cheeses, and the like. 5 Dogs were also sacrificed to Hecate, and the remains of purificatory sacrifices might be offered to the goddess and her crew with averted gaze. Magicians and sorcerers, on the other hand, would summon her aid for their own nefarious purposes, or even try to summon her up in person. The sorceress Medeia invokes her as her mistress and helper in Euripides’ Medeia; and in Theocritus’ second Idyll, a young woman is shown as praying for her help in some love-magic:

Shine brightly for me, o Moon, for it is to you that I shall chant, silent goddess, and to infernal Hecate, who causes the very dogs to tremble before her as she passes over the graves of the dead and the dark blood. Hail grim Hecate, and remain with me to the end, so that these drugs of my making may prove as powerful as any of Circe’s, or of Medeia’s, or of golden-haired Perimede’s. 6

And similarly on curse-tablets (defixiones), inscriptions on thin sheets of lead that have survived from the ancient world, the writer of the curse often calls upon Hecate to put the curse into effect.

Children of Themis and Mnemosyne

Themis and Mnemosyne, who do not belong at all comfortably among the Titans for reasons already indicated, are drawn into the sphere of Zeus in the latter part of the Theogony in so far as they are said to have borne sets of female children to him, the Seasons and Muses respectively; and although we will encounter the Moirai (Fates) among the children of Night (see p. 59), they are reclassed as further children of Zeus and Themis in this part of the poem, which was added later. 7 Themis and Mnemosyne can be properly associated with Zeus, as can the children here assigned to them, in so far as they represent forces that remain permanently active in the world after the Olympian order has been established.

Oceanos and Tethys and their children the Oceanids and rivers

OCEANOS was the god of the Ocean (Oceanos, a word of non-Greek origin), a great river that was thought to encircle the lands of the earth on every side. The goddess TETHYS was traditionally regarded as his wife; indeed in one tradition, as we have just seen, the pair were regarded as the first couple and the ancestors of the other gods. Hesiod, who has other ideas on that matter, acknowledges the venerable status of Oceanos, as the source of all the rivers and springs of the earth at least, by describing him as the eldest of the Titans. 8

Even if he was not a nonentity like some of his brothers and sisters, he lived too far away and was too closely identified with his streams to make many appearances in mythical narratives. The Iliad reports that Rhea entrusted her daughter Hera to Oceanos and Tethys to be reared in their palace in the Ocean while Zeus was confronting Cronos and the Titans; and Pherecydes recounts a tale in which Oceanos tried to intimidate Heracles by raising his waves while the hero was crossing his waters to fetch the cattle of Geryoneus (see p. 251). 9 The god appears on the stage in the Prometheus Bound, arriving on a griffin or some such creature to offer sympathy and advice to the enchained Prometheus. 10 Tethys came to be identified with the sea in Hellenistic and later times; an astral myth suggests that she refuses to allow the Great Bear to set into the sea out of consideration for the feelings of her former foster-child Hera (for this polar constellation, which never sets below the horizon, was supposed to represent a former mistress of Zeus, Callisto, who had been transformed into a bear, see p. 546). 11

Oceanos and Tethys produced 3,000 (i.e. innumerable) sons, comprising all the RIVERS of the world (Potamoi, which are masculine in Greek), and 3,000 daughters, the Ocean-nymphs or OCEANIDS (Oceanidai, or Oceaninai). The functions of the latter were by no means confined to the water; Hesiod remarks that they are scattered everywhere, haunting the earth and deep waters alike, and observes in particular that they watch over the young. 12 The Theogony offers a catalogue of 41 Ocean-nymphs. Although the names of many of them are no more than poetic inventions, as in the case of the Nereids, a few noteworthy figures may be found among them. Metis, the personification of cunning intelligence, was swallowed by Zeus after conceiving Athena to him, and reappears accordingly in a later section of the Theogony (see p. 73), as does the Oceanid Eurynome, who bore the Graces to him (see p. 74). Peitho (Persuasion), who presided over all forms of persuasion from the political to the amatory, was often regarded as an attendant of Aphrodite (see p. 183). Tyche (Fortune, equivalent to the Roman Fortuna) became a goddess of some importance in Hellenistic and later times when she came to be widely honoured in cult, both as a universal power and in relation to the fortunes of particular places or potentates. Dione, who was sometimes regarded as a consort of Zeus, was the mother of Aphrodite in the Homeric account (see p. 74–5). Doris married Nereus to become the mother of another family of sea-nymphs, the Nereids (see p. 48), Clymene for her part became the wife of the Titan Iapetos (see p. 46), and Callirhoe the wife of Chrysaor (see p. 55), Perseis the wife of the sun-god Helios, and Iduia the wife of Aietes, king of Colchis.

If Hesiod places Styx, the goddess of the infernal river of that name (see p. 99), at the end of his list of Ocean-nymphs, he indicates that he is doing so because he regards her as the most important of them. 13 She married Pallas, a son of the Titans Creios and Eurybie (see p. 46), and bore him four children who were personifications of powerful forces, Zelos (Glory), Nike (Victory), Cratos (Strength of Power), and Bia (Force or Might). 14 When the great war was about to break out between the Titans and the younger gods, Styx brought her children to Zeus on Olympos, since they all represented forces that could prove invaluable to him in the forthcoming conflict; and Zeus was duly grateful and paid high honour to Styx and her children, declaring that the solemn oaths of the gods would be sworn by her waters, and that her children would live with him forever (or in other words, the qualities that they represent would become attributes of his own). 15 Whenever any serious disputes arose thenceforth between the gods, Zeus would send the divine messenger Iris to fetch some water from the streams of Styx in a golden jug; and if any god swore falsely by it, he would be deprived of nectar and ambrosia for a year (and so rendered insensible), and would be banished from the company of the gods for nine years. 16 Two of Styx’s children, Cratos and Bia, also appear at the beginning of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, in which they lead out the captive Prometheus and ask Hephaistos to chain him to a crag in accordance with the will of Zeus (see p. 87). 17

On the male side of the family, Hesiod names only a few of the most notable RIVERS of the upper world by way of example; and we will narrow the range further by picking out the four that are of greatest interest from a mythological point of view, the Eridanos, Acheloos, Alpheios, and Scamandros. Originally a mythical stream that lay somewhere in north-west Europe, the ERIDANOS came to be identified with the Po 18 (or sometimes with the Rhône, or indeed with both rivers in a geographically impossible combination, see p. 407). Phaethon was supposed to have plunged into it when he fell from the chariot of the Sun (see p. 43), and the Argonauts were sometimes said to have sailed along it during their return journey, to pass from the head of the Adriatic to the western Mediterranean (see p. 409). Since amber was conveyed from the Baltic to the Mediterranean by way of the river systems of western Europe (among other routes), it is understandable that the Eridanos should have come to be regarded as its source in Greek lore; 19 for the legend that was devised to explain why amber appears in the river, see p. 43. The Greeks applied the name of the river to the great river-like constellation in the southern sky that is still known as Eridanus. 20 The god of the Eridanos has no myths as a personal being.

The ACHELOOS, which rose in Epirus in north-western Greece and flowed to the sea near the northern entrance to the Corinthian Gulf, was the largest river in Greece. The god of the river makes a notable appearance in heroic myth in connection with Heracles, who wrestled with him for the hand of Deianeira, a daughter of Oineus, king of Calydon, whose city lay no great distance from his streams (see p. 265), and he also plays a role in the legend of the Argive hero Alcmaion, who married his daughter Callirhoe (the Fair-flowing; see p. 363). He figures, furthermore, in two transformation myths recounted by Ovid. According to one, some naiad nymphs once forgot to invite him along with other deities of the area to a local sacrifice and festival, causing him to swell with rage until his waters flooded over and washed them out to sea to become the Echinades, a group of islands just outside the Corinthian Gulf, not far from the mouth of the Acheloos. 21 The other tale tells how he once seduced a maiden called Perimele, whose father Hippodamas was so angry to learn of it that he hurled her over a cliff into the sea. Acheloos held her up in the water, however, and appealed for the help of Poseidon, who turned her into an island that was known by her name. 22

The god of the ALPHEIOS, the longest river in the Peloponnese, was famous for his love of ARETHOUSA, a Syracusan spring-nymph. Although the idea of the river’s journey through the sea to Sicily was certainly quite old, since it was known to Ibycus and Pindar, the bucolic poet Moschus (second century bc) is the first author to state that Alpheios made the journey out of love. Emerging from his river-mouth, he dived into the depths of the sea, passing through it in such a way that his own waters never mingled with its salt waters. 23 Transformation myths were devised to explain the origin of the Syracusan spring, and even of the river itself. According to Ovid, Arethousa was originally a Peloponnesian nymph who was more interested in hunting than love, but inadvertently awakened the love of Alpheios by bathing naked in his waters after a hunting trip. When he then set off in pursuit of her, Artemis tried to deliver her from him by enveloping her in a mist and transforming her into a stream; but since Alpheios simply resumed his original form to mingle his waters with those of the newly created stream, Artemis was obliged to take further action by opening up a cleft in the earth to enable Arethousa to escape to Sicily, where she formed the spring that bore her name. 24 Ovid does not state that Alpheios travelled to Syracuse thereafter to pursue his love, as in the traditional story; and we are presumably not meant to assume this, for Artemis arranged her removal to Sicily for the specific purpose of preventing Alpheios from mingling with her. In Pausanias’ account, Alpheios also acquired his final form as the result of a transformation, for he was originally a Peloponnesian hunter who fell in love with a huntress called Arethousa. As is generally the case with huntresses in myth, she had no desire to marry him or anyone else, and therefore fled across the sea to Syracuse, where she was turned into a spring in unexplained circumstances; and Alpheios was then turned into a river ‘out of love’ (presumably to enable him to mingle with the spring). 25

The SCAMANDROS (or Scamander in Latin) is familiar from the Iliad as the main river of the Trojan plain. Homer reports that it sprang up from two adjoining springs, one steaming hot and the other ice cold, and was known to the gods as Xanthos (the Yellow River, evidently because it was coloured by the soil that was carried in its waters). 26 Scamandros was highly honoured by the Trojans, who sacrificed many bulls to him and used to cast living horses into his streams. 27 While Achilles was advancing against Troy after the death of Patroclos, he gravely offended Scamandros by polluting his waters with a multitude of Trojan corpses; and, on finding that his protests were greeted with contempt, the river-god overflowed his banks, casting the bodies ashore and almost drowning Achilles. When he then called on the assistance of Simoeis, the other main river of the Trojan plain, Achilles would surely have perished if Hera (an eager supporter of the Greeks) had not asked Hephaistos to force Scamandros to return to his courses by setting fire to his banks. 28 Later sources report that Teucros, the first king of Troy, was a son of Scamandros, and that two subsequent kings, Tros and Laomedon, were married to daughters of his (see pp. 442ff.). 29 This reflects a common pattern in which primordial rulers or their wives are classed as children of local river-gods, as is understandable since rivers are such prominent features of the primordial landscape.

Hyperion and Theia and the origin of the luminaries of the sky and main winds

The Titan HYPERION and his wife and sister THEIA, who have no myths of their own, were the parents of three children who brought light to the heavens, Helios (the Sun, Sol in Latin), Selene (the Moon, Luna in Latin), and Eos (Dawn, Aurora in Latin). 30 These deities were little worshipped in Greece, although HELIOS was often invoked in oaths in his capacity as an all-seeing god who would be able to bear witness to any perjury. His most important cultic centre was Rhodes, where he was honoured as a god of the very first rank. Pindar recounts a legend that explains how he came to be lord of the island. Long ago, when the gods were dividing the earth among themselves, Helios was granted no land of his own because he happened to be absent (presumably on his daily journey through the sky). Although Zeus offered to make amends by ordering a recasting of the lot, Helios told him that he would be satisfied with a wonderful new land that he had seen rising up from the sea, the fertile island of Rhodes. So he took Rhodes as his bride and fathered seven sons by her, one of whom (named elsewhere as Cercaphos) was destined to father the eponyms of the three greatest cities of the island, Ialsysos, Cameiros, and Lindos. 31 On the mainland, Helios was most highly honoured at Corinth; see pp. 128–9 for the story of how he competed with Poseidon for the city and land. From the classical period onwards, he was sometimes identified with Apollo, who was a radiant deity like himself. 32 The fact that both gods were archers (the Sun’s rays being described as his arrows by a common and natural metaphor) may have encouraged the identification.

In art and literature Helios is normally represented as a charioteer who drives across the sky each day from east to west (although he is also imagined very occasionally as riding on horseback, or as flying on his own wings); in pictorial images, his head is often surrounded with a nimbus and rays of light. His chariot-team consists of four (or less commonly, two) gleaming horses, which are usually winged in earlier images. Poets liked to give them appropriate names such as Pyroeis (Fiery), Eoos (Orient), Aithon or Aithops (Blazing), Phlegon (Flaming), and the like. 33 Helios plunged into the stream of Ocean in the furthermost west after his daily journey, where he bathed and relaxed before travelling back to the east during the night. It was naïvely imagined that he made this journey by floating around the encircling Ocean in a huge golden cup, which had been made for him for that purpose by Hephaistos; he lent it to Heracles on one or two occasions as we will see (pp. 251 and 256). His palace lay near the sunrise in the east (although we occasionally hear of a western palace in the late tradition). According to the early elegiac poet Mimnermus, he kept his sunbeams in a golden chamber in his palace. 34

It is reported in the Odyssey that Helios owned seven herds of immortal cattle and seven flocks of sheep, which were pastured by two of his daughters on Thrinacia, an island vaguely situated in the remote west (though later identified with Sicily). When detained on this island by bad weather, the followers of Odysseus killed some of the cattle to satisfy their hunger even though their leader had expressly ordered them not to, an act of sacrilege that was reported to Helios by his daughter Lampetie. Helios was so angry that he approached Zeus and the other gods with his grievance, threatening to desert the sky and shine among the dead in Hades if he was not adequately avenged; so Zeus took action on his behalf by striking Odysseus’ ship with a thunderbolt, causing the death of everyone on board apart from Odysseus himself (see also on p. 510). 35 Augeias, king of Elis, was sometimes said to have acquired his innumerable cattle (see p. 248) from his father Helios; according to Theocritus, twelve of them were special swan-white beasts that were sacred to Helios. Helios also appears in another context in the Odyssey, as the all-seeing god who informed Hephaistos that his wife Aphrodite was engaging in an adulterous love affair with Ares (see p. 185). By virtue of his position in the sky, he is also able to perform a comparable service for Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, by telling her that her daughter has been carried away by Hades (see p. 94). 36

Helios married Perse or Perseis, a daughter of Oceanos, who bore him two children according to the earliest tradition, as attested in the Odyssey and Theogony, namely Aietes, king of Colchis, who plays a central role in the legend of the Argonauts (see pp. 405ff.), and the enchantress Circe, whose remote island home in the far west was visited by Odysseus (see p. 507) and the Argonauts (see p. 409). Further children came to be credited to the couple in the later tradition, most notably Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, and Aloeus, a primordial king of Sicyon (see p. 555). 37

His afore-mentioned daughters who tended his cattle on Thrinacia, Lampetie, and Phaethousa, were borne to him by a certain Neaira according to the Odyssey, or else by Rhode, daughter of Asopos. 38 By far the most famous of his illegitimate children, however, was his son PHAETHON (‘the Radiant’), who was borne to him by CLYMENE, the wife of Merops, king of the Ethiopians; this Clymene is said to have been a daughter of Oceanos, like the wife of Helios (though she must obviously be distinguished from the Oceanid of that name who is the wife of Iapetos in the Theogony). 39 Although there is no very early evidence for the famous legend of Phaethon’s misadventure with his father’s chariot, the story was probably recounted in the Hesiodic literature 40 (whether the Catalogue or the Astronomy) and certainly in the lost Heliades of Aeschylus. Phaethon was presented in that play as having set off in the chariot with the (perhaps reluctant) consent of his father, who tried to offer him some practical advice as he departed. 41 We are told in Hellenistic sources that Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt because he was unable to keep the chariot on course, so causing the earth to be in danger of being set on fire, or else that he was simply thrown out of the chariot as it fell out of control. 42 The former idea won general acceptance. The story takes the following form in the fullest narrative by Ovid. Phaethon was reared by Clymene in her husband’s palace, which lay in the remote east, no great distance from the palace of Helios. She told him that he was a son of Helios, and he bragged about his high descent until one of his comrades could stand it no longer and retorted that it was a lie. When he approached his mother for reassurance, she swore by Helios himself that she had spoken the truth and advised him to visit his father’s palace if he wanted further confirmation. So he set off for the splendid palace of the sun-god, which had walls and pillars of gleaming metal and a roof of ivory; and he received a kindly welcome from Helios, who acknowledged him as his son and offered him the choice of whatever he most desired. When he responded by asking to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky on the following day, Helios tried to warn him of the dangers, but finally had to allow him to do so in accordance with his promise. As Helios had foreseen, Phaethon was unable to control the spirited chariot-horses and drove through the sky on an erratic course, sometimes soaring too high and sometimes descending too low, much to the alarm of Earth, who began to fear for her own survival as her surface caught fire and her waters dried up. So she appealed urgently to Zeus, who hurled a thunderbolt at Phaethon, causing him to fall from the chariot and plunge to his death far below in the river Eridanos (see p. 43). 43 All the main features of this story can be found in earlier sources; there was also a somewhat different version in which Phaethon mounted the chariot in secret without gaining his father’s permission. 44

Phaethon’s sisters, the HELIADES, mourned for him so grievously after his death that Zeus or the gods took pity on them and transformed them into poplar trees that stood beside the Eridanos. This is an ancient story that already appeared in the above-mentioned play by Aeschylus, in which the Heliades formed the chorus. The resinous tears that they shed into the river accounted for the origin of amber, according to an idea that is first stated in Euripides’ Hippolytos (but is also ascribed to ‘Hesiod’). For another mythical account of the origin of amber, see pp. 142–3. 45 In the version of Phaethon’s story in which he mounted his father’s chariot in secret, his sisters were transformed into the trees for quite another reason, because they had yoked the chariot for him against their father’s orders. 46 The death of Phaethon was also lamented by CYCNOS, king of the Ligurians, a very fine musician who had been a relation or friend of his, or indeed his lover. The gods (or Apollo specifically) pitied his sorrow and turned him into a swan (kyknos in Greek), a bird that shares his musical nature and sings mournfully before it dies. 47 Some accounts add that Cycnos was transferred to the sky to become the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus). 48

When a myth was devised to explain the origin of the heliotrope, a plant that keeps its flowers constantly turned towards the sun, Helios was bound to play a central part in it. In the earliest surviving account, by Ovid, the tale runs as follows. Helios fell desperately in love with LEUCOTHOE, daughter of Orchamos, king of Persia, forgetting all his previous loves, and assumed the form of Leucothoe’s mother to make his way into her room. He then dismissed her attendants, and now revealing his identity, resumed his true form and splendour to seduce her. He had a former mistress, however, called Clytie (described elsewhere as a sister of Leucothoe), who was so jealous of Leucothoe that she caused it to become generally known that she had a lover, persuading her father above all of that fact. In his anger, the brutal king buried her beneath the earth, and she died before Helios could come to her rescue. Overcome by sorrow, he sprinkled nectar over her body and the surrounding soil, causing an incense-tree to grow up in place of her. As for Clytie, he would have nothing to do with her, and she pined away for love of him, refusing all food and drink, until she finally turned into a heliotrope; and she retains her love for Helios even in this new form, as is witnessed in the movement of the flowers of the heliotrope. Although this story is ascribed to Hesiod in one source, one may doubt that it really originated in any Hesiodic text. In another account, the father of Leucothoe is called Orchomenos, which would imply that her story was now set in Boeotia in mainland Greece. 49

The gently radiant SELENE (or Selenaia), the goddess of the moon, could be pictured as a charioteer like her brother; a remarkable sculpture of the head of one of her chariot-horses can be seen among the Parthenon marbles. Some authors specify that she drives a pair rather than a four like her brother, in accordance with the standard image in vase-paintings and other works of art. She is drawn by two snow-white horses or, occasionally, by oxen. Or in some portrayals, she rides through the heavens on a horse (or steer, or mule, or even a ram), facing sideways with both legs on one flank of her mount. 50 There is an attractive literary account of her journey through the sky in the Homeric Hymn to Selene, which also reports that she once slept with Zeus and bore him a daughter called Pandeia (an obscure figure whose name may have been derived from a title of Selene). 51

The only notable legend recorded for Selene is the one that tells how she fell in love with Endymion, a hero of Elis in the western Peloponnese, see further on pp. 38–9. There is also an interesting but poorly attested legend in which Pan is said to have set out to seduce her. Vergil mentions in passing that Pan tried to lure her into the woods by offering her the snowy fleece of a sheep; and the Hellenistic poet Nicander is reported to have offered an account in which Pan disguised himself in a fleece (or possibly turned himself into a ram) to approach her. 52 The rusticity of the tale suggests that it may have originated as a local legend in Arcadia. Just as Helios came to be equated with Apollo, Selene was quite often equated with Artemis after the classical period, as already seems to be implied in a fragment from Aeschylus that suggests that she was a daughter of Leto. 53 She was of importance in magic as a goddess whom one could approach in the laying of spells, especially love-spells; in the second Idyll of Theocritus, a girl who has been forsaken by her lover is shown as invoking her when laying a spell of that kind. 54

There is some disagreement about the descent of Selene. According to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, her father was Pallas, son of Megamedes (otherwise unknown), 55 who may perhaps be identified with the Pallas who is classed as a son of the Titan Creios in the Theogony. Or, in the Homeric Hymn to Helios, Hyperion is said to have fathered her and her two siblings by Euryphaessa (‘she who shines far and wide’) rather than by Theia. 56 One or two passages in tragedy refer to her as a daughter of Helios (rather than as his sister), which seems appropriate enough in view of her borrowed light. 57 Herse (Dew), the goddess or personification of the dew, is described as a daughter of Zeus and Selene in a lyric fragment from Alcman, 58 but this is really no more than an allegorical fancy referring to the heavy dewfall associated with clear moonlit nights.

The third child of the union between Hyperion and Theia was EOS (the Dawn, Latin Aurora). As a light-bringing goddess who ascends into the sky ahead of Helios, she represents something more than what we might ordinarily understand by the dawn, namely the light of the new day (and, to an increasing extent, even daylight without qualification). Hemera, Day personified, was often identified with Eos as a consequence, even if she is a separate being in the Theogony (see p. 19). Eos is usually shown as winged in works of art, unlike her brother and sister; but in her capacity as a light-bringer, she ascends in a chariot just as they do, commonly a two-horse chariot like that of Selene. In poetry from Homer onwards, she is described by picturesque epithets that refer to the colours of the sky at dawn, such as ‘rosy-fingered’ (rhododaktylos) or ‘saffron-robed’ (krokopeplos). 59

Eos has a comparatively well-marked personality, being pictured as an amorous goddess who liked to abduct handsome young men. The most famous and best-recorded story of this kind is that which tells of her relationship with TITHONOS, a son of Laomedon, king of Troy, and a brother of Priam. The legend was plainly very ancient since both the Iliad and the Odyssey refer to Eos as rising ‘from her bed beside lordly Tithonos’ when she sets off to bring the light of day to gods and mortals. 60 The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite provides the earliest full account of this story. Eos carried Tithonos’ off and asked Zeus to render him immortal, but never thought to ask in addition that he should retain his youth and so be exempted from the ravages of age. While he was still young, the two of them lived happily together by the streams of Ocean at the edges of the earth; but when the first grey hairs began to sprout on his head and chin, Eos abandoned his bed even though she continued to take care of him in her house, providing him with food and ambrosia and fine clothing; and when he became so feeble that he could no longer move his limbs, she laid him in a room behind closed doors, where he has babbled away helplessly ever since. 61 According to a familiar tale that first appears in the classical period, Eos finally transformed him into an insect noted for its song, the cicada (tettix). 62 This idea was presumably inspired by the reference to the ceaseless talking (aspetos phēmē) of the incapacitated Tithonos in the Homeric hymn; the high-pitched talk of old men is compared to the singing of cicadas in a famous passage in the Iliad. 63 It may also be relevant that cicadas were supposed to survive on dew alone (for it would seem that Tithonos was no longer fed when he was shut behind closed doors). It is stated in one late source that Eos transformed him so as to be able to enjoy his song. 64 In earlier and happier days, she bore him two children, namely Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, who fought as an ally of the Trojans in the last stages of the Trojan War (see p. 476), and Emathion, who was killed by Heracles in Ethiopia (see p. 256). 65 We should imagine that the couple lived somewhere in the remote east near the dawn. Their son Memnon was usually associated with the east accordingly, as we will see, rather than with the African Ethiopia.

The Odyssey refers to two other love affairs of Eos, stating in the first place that she abducted the hunter Orion, causing resentment among the gods, who tended to disapprove of liaisons between goddesses and mortals; so they incited Artemis to kill him in his new home of Ortygia (usually identified with Delos in later times). 66 This account of the death of Orion was displaced by other stories in the later tradition (see p. 562). The Odyssey also mentions that Eos was so attracted by the beauty of Cleitos, son of Mantios, a grandson of the great seer Melampous, that she carried him away to dwell with the immortals. 67 It is reported in the Theogony (in a section added after Hesiod’s time) that Eos loved a certain Cephalos and bore him a son Phaethon (not to be confused with the son of Helios above), who was seized by Aphrodite to serve in her temple. 68 Although this Cephalos – who was apparently a son of Hermes – was properly a separate figure from the Cephalos, son of Deion, who was the husband of Procris in Attic legend, the two were sometimes identified in the later tradition, and Eos was occasionally introduced into the legend of Cephalos and Procris as a consequence (see further on p. 326). To explain the over-susceptible nature of Eos, some claimed that Aphrodite caused her to be constantly falling in love to punish her for having slept with Ares (who was Aphrodite’s lover or husband). 69

In addition to her many lovers, Eos had an official consort, ASTRAIOS (Starry), a son of the Titan Creios and the Oceanid Eurybia. Her children by this marriage were the stars of the heavens and the three main winds, Boreas (the North Wind), Zephyros (the West Wind), and Notos (the South Wind). 70

Hesiod singles out the Morning Star, HEOSPHOROS, as the most notable of the starry children of Eos. It should be remembered in this connection that the planets or ‘wandering stars’ (planētes asteres) were not regarded as being essentially different from the fixed stars. The planet now known as Venus was called Heosphoros (Dawn-bringer) or Phosphoros (Light-bringer) in Greek in so far as it appears as the Morning Star, and Hesperos in so far as it appears as the Evening Star (hesperos astēr), although it was recognized from quite early times, certainly before the classical period, that the two stars are one and the same. Even if Eos were not the mother of all the stars, it might naturally be assumed that she would be the mother of Heosphoros because he is the forerunner of the dawn, and that may perhaps have been the initial thought that prompted Hesiod to make her the mother of all the stars and give her a starry husband. Heosphoros has no myths as a personal being, although he makes some slight appearance in the heroic genealogies (e.g. as the father of Ceux, see p. 380).

Eos was presumably regarded as a suitable mother for the winds because the wind often rises at dawn in Greece. Hesiod classes the three greatest winds as her children while all the harmful winds of an inferior nature are described as offspring of the monstrous Typhon (see p. 79). Although ZEPHYROS (the West Wind) is characterized as a cleansing wind in the Theogony and tends to be stormy in Homer, he is customarily viewed as mild and gentle in the later tradition (an idea preserved in our English word ‘zephyr’). In the Iliad, the divine messenger Iris visits ‘fierce-blowing Zephyros’ in his home, while he is dining there with the other winds, to summon him and Boreas to blow on the funeral pyre of Patroclos, for Achilles had prayed for their help after it had failed to kindle. 71 As we will see (p. 53), Homer states that Zephyros fathered the horses of Achilles by a Harpy. BOREAS, the violent North Wind, descended on Greece from his northern homeland of Thrace. His most important story is the Athenian legend that told how he abducted Oreithuia, a princess of that land, to make her his wife (see further on p. 325). She bore him twin sons, Zetes and Calais, the Boreads (Boreadai), who shared something of their father’s nature as winged beings who could fly swiftly through the air and were famous for their pursuit of the Harpies (see p. 403). As a consequence of his marital connection with Athens, Boreas brought special help to the Athenians on more than one occasion (see p. 325). NOTOS, the god of the moist west wind (which was considered to be unhealthy) never developed into a mythical figure of any significance. The Winds were usually pictured as winged and bearded, and often as wild in appearance. According to differing conceptions that can both be found in Homer, the winds could be regarded either as independent agents or as being subject to the control of Aiolos, the lord of the winds (see p. 506). 72

The three sons of Creios and Eurybia

The Titan CREIOS (or Crios), a thoroughly obscure figure, married a daughter of Pontos (Sea) called Eurybia. They had three sons, Astraios, Pallas, and Perses, who were of genealogical significance alone as the husbands of Eos, Styx, and Asterie respectively, goddesses of greater individuality than themselves. 73 ASTRAIOS (Starry) has already been considered in connection with Eos, as the father of the stars and three main winds. PALLAS (genitive Pallantis, to be distinguished from Pallas, gen. Pallados, the well-known title of Athena) married STYX, the goddess of the infernal river of that name (see p. 99), and fathered Victory and three other personifications by her, see further on p. 39. PERSES, for his part, married Asterie, the youngest daughter of the Titans Coios and Phoibe, and fathered the goddess Hecate by her (see p. 37); Hesiod remarks that he was pre-eminent for his wisdom, but no myths are recorded to show how he displayed it. He should be distinguished from two mortal heroes of the same name, a brother of Aietes (see p. 413) and a son of Perseus (see p. 227).

Iapetos and Clymene, the parents of Atlas and Prometheus

The Titan IAPETOS married the Oceanid Clymene (or the Oceanid Asia) and fathered four sons by her, Prometheus and Epimetheus, whose interrelated myths will be considered in the next chapter (see pp. 86ff.), Atlas, who held up the heavens, and the comparatively obscure Menoitios. 74 Hesiod indicates that MENOITIOS clashed with Zeus, like his more famous brother Prometheus, but offers no details, merely stating that Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt and hurled him down to Erebos (the nether darkness, presumably of Tartaros) on account of his folly and presumption. 75 It appears that later authors knew little more about him than we do. Apollodorus remarks, to be sure, that he was struck down by Zeus during the war between the Titans and the younger gods (evidently because he was supporting the Titans), but this may well be some mythographer’s conjecture rather than a genuine early tradition. 76

ATLAS contributed in his way to the ordering of the world by performing the arduous but essential duty of holding up the sky. Much as in the case of Menoitios, it was suggested in later times that he had angered Zeus by supporting (or even leading) the Titans in their war with the younger gods, and was burdened with this duty as a consequence; 77 but there is no reason to assume that it was regarded as a punishment for some specific offence in the early tradition. According to the Theogony, he supports the sky on his head and hands, standing at the edges of the earth near the Hesperides (i.e. in the far west); or, in a gentler account in the Odyssey, he holds the tall pillars that keep the earth and sky apart, apparently standing somewhere in the sea. 78 In works of art he is usually shown holding up a globe that represents the sky (and sometimes has figures of the constellations marked on it accordingly). Although Pausanias states that he was shown holding up the earth and sky in images on the chest of Cypselos and the barriers around the statue of Zeus at Olympia, 79 the artists had presumably intended the globe to represent the sky alone. Herodotus is our earliest source for the rationalistic account in which sky was said to rest on Mt Atlas in the western reaches of North Africa. 80 Atlas lived so far away and was so constrained by his task that there was little occasion for him to appear in heroic myth; indeed, the story in which Heracles took over his burden while he went to fetch the apples of the Hesperides (see p. 257) is his only myth that is at all ancient. He was of genealogical importance nonetheless as the founder of one of the great heroic families, that of the Atlantids, which was formed from the descendants of the seven daughters who were borne to him by his wife Pleione, daughter of Oceanos, see further on pp. 439ff. There is no mention in the Theogony of him having any wife and family, and his seven daughters are first named in the Hesiodic Catalogue 81 (Figure 3.1).

Heracles holds up the sky for Atlas. Drawing after a Greek vase-painting.

Figure 3.1   Heracles holds up the sky for Atlas. Drawing after a Greek vase-painting.

The family of Earth and Sea

To move on to the second of Earth’s families, the one that she founded by mating with her self-generated son PONTOS or SEA is of mixed character, consisting partly of sea-gods and sea-nymphs as might be expected of descendants of Sea, partly of winged aerial beings, and partly of monsters who needed to be kept apart from the higher gods and might be fittingly imagined as having sprung from the formless element. Earth bore three sons to Sea, two ‘old men of the sea’, Nereus and Phorcys, and the mysterious Thaumas (who may have been a sea-god too, although there is no evidence to show that). Nereus fathered a family of sea-nymphs, the Nereids, while Thaumas became the father of Iris, the swift-flying goddess of the rainbow, and of the Harpies, who were originally wind-spirits. Phorcys, for his part, married his sister Ceto to found an alarming family of monsters. Eurybia, the last of these children of Earth and Sea, married the Titan Creios, and her family has thus already been considered in the next chapter along with the other families of Titan descent, see p. 46. Sea himself was barely personified and had no myths or cult; the great god of the seas in the Greek tradition was Poseidon, an Olympian deity who was of later birth. 82

Nereus and Doris and their daughters the Nereids

NEREUS, the eldest son of Pontos and Gaia, was an ancient sea-god who belonged to an older generation than Poseidon and was rather cast into the shade by him as were other ‘old men of the sea’. Of very limited significance in myth and virtually none in cult, he is pictured in the Iliad as living in a shining cave in the depths of the sea with his many daughters, the Nereid sea-nymphs, who were of far greater importance than he was and have even survived into modern folklore. Hesiod describes him as being truthful and never-deceiving, evidently because he possessed prophetic powers, and states that he is called ‘the old one’ (gēron, a title suggestive of the wisdom of old age) because he is unerring and gentle and ever-mindful of what is right. 83 As a very ancient sea-god of subordinate rank to Poseidon, he could thus be identified with the ‘old man of the sea’, who is usually an anonymous figure in the Homeric epics and was generally honoured as such in cult. The title was also applied to other sea-gods of a comparable nature, such as Phorcys (who is a brother of Nereus in Hesiod’s genealogical scheme, see below) and Proteus, who are both called by that name in the Odyssey.

Nereus was credited with prophetic powers, as was characteristic of sea-gods of this kind, and also with the ability to transform himself at will, a power that was commonly attributed to gods and nymphs who inhabited the formless element. He had only a single story of any real note, the quite ancient myth in which Heracles was said to have wrestled with him to force him to reveal the route to the Hesperides (see p. 255), much as Menelaos and his companions forced Proteus to disclose such secrets in a famous scene in the Odyssey (see p. 496). Although he tried to escape by transforming himself into water and fire and all manner of different beasts, the hero kept a firm grip on him until he was finally willing to speak; 84 the struggle is depicted on vase-paintings from the sixth and fifth centuries bc, which show Nereus with a fish-tail in the earliest representations but later in fully human form. In another quite early tale, Nereus delivered the cup of the sun to Heracles after the sun-god Helios had offered to lend it to him (see pp. 250–1); 85 and in one of Horace’s odes, he imposes a calm to halt the ship of Paris after his abduction of Helen and rises up from the sea to warn him of all the evil consequences that will follow from his action. 86 It is sometimes suggested in late sources that he reared Aphrodite in his home under the sea. 87

Nereus married the Oceanid Doris and fathered a large family of sea-nymphs, the NEREIDS (Nereides), who lived with their parents under the sea (Figure 3.2). 88 They were of considerable significance in popular belief and cult, and Herodotus reports, for instance, that the Persians offered sacrifice to them in accordance with Greek practice when their fleet was once struck by a persistent storm off the coast of Greece. With very few exceptions, they remained together as virgins, emerging from their home only to sport with the sea-beasts in the waves above or to dance on the shore. 89 If Nereids were a sort of mermaid in ancient belief (although not pictured as fish-tailed), their name has come to be applied to land-nymphs and fairies in modern Greece, displacing the Dryads, Oreads, and so forth. By another shift of meaning, the name Gorgon has come to be applied to mermaids.

A Nereid riding a cuttlefish. Drawing after a Greek vase-painting.

Figure 3.2   A Nereid riding a cuttlefish. Drawing after a Greek vase-painting.

Poets exercised their ingenuity in devising pretty names for the Nereids, mostly referring to the sea and seafaring, such as Neso or Nesaie, ‘island-girl’, Eulimine, ‘good-harbour-woman’, Cumatolege, ‘wave-stiller’, and Pontoporeia, ‘sea-farer’. Hesiod provides a catalogue of 50 names, and other lists, which vary to differing extents, may be found in the Iliad, Apollodorus, and Hyginus. 90 The Nereids are rarely accorded any specific role as a group in mythical narratives, although Homer reports that they went ashore with their sister Thetis to mourn the deaths of Patroclos and Achilles (see pp. 474 and 478), and it is stated in later epic that they helped the Argonauts through the Wandering Rocks at the bidding of Hera (see p. 409).

Three Nereids emerge as separate personalities with stories of their own, and two of these were figures of very high note from an early period, Amphitrite as the consort of Poseidon and queen of the sea (see further on p. 129), and Thetis as the mother of the great hero Achilles, whom she bore after suffering the exceptional fate of being forced into marriage with a mortal. And a third sister, Galateia, appears in a relatively late myth of less serious nature, in which she was said to have aroused the helpless love of the one-eyed ogre Polyphemos. Mention should perhaps also be made of the Nereid Psamathe, who became the mother of Phocos after being caught by surprise by Aiacos, king of Aegina (see p. 427 and Figure 3.3).

Peleus and his wife, the Nereid Thetis. Tondo of an attic red-figure kylix (drinking cup) from Vulci. © bpk Bildagentur/Art Resource, NY.

Figure 3.3   Peleus and his wife, the Nereid Thetis. Tondo of an attic red-figure kylix (drinking cup) from Vulci. © bpk Bildagentur/Art Resource, NY.

The myths of Thetis, who married Peleus, king of Phthia in Thessaly, and bore Achilles to him, will be considered later in connection with the birth of her son (see p. 429ff) and her further involvement with him during the Trojan War. GALATEIA attracted the desire of a most improbable suitor, the Cyclops Polyphemos, who is familiar from the Odyssey as the ogre who captured Odysseus and ate some of his men (see p. 506). In so far as his character is softened by the effects of love, he is presented as being a less savage and fearsome creature than in Homer’s portrayal, and he sets out to win the favour of the sea-nymph with such naïvely inept love-songs as his none-too-copious intelligence can suggest. There could be no question, of course, of her yielding to her uncouth admirer, and she is able to keep him at a safe distance by remaining in her own element. This one-sided love affair was set in Sicily, and the story can be traced back to a dithyramb of Philoxenus of Cythera (c. 436–380 bc) entitled the Cyclops, of which only a few brief fragments survive. It told how Polyphemos took up the lyre to sing the praises of Galateia, and of how Odysseus tried to win his release from the ogre by offering to put his ingenuity to work to help him to gain his desire. 91 This poem became very celebrated, not least because it was supposed that the depiction of Polyphemos was intended as a satirical portrait of Dionysios I, the despotic tyrant of Syracuse. The theme, which offered scope for both pathos and comedy, proved appealing to subsequent poets, and a sample of the lovesick ogre’s singing can be found in the eleventh Idyll of Theocritus. He is sadly aware that his single eye and squat nose have not advanced his cause with the nymph; and yet, all the same, if she would only come up from the sea, he could offer her an abundance of milk and cheese, and fawns and bear cubs as pets, and a snug cave to share with him in the mountain side. 92

Polyphemos has a rival in Ovid’s account in the form of a handsome youth called ACIS, a son whom Faunus (a rustic Italian god comparable to Pan) had fathered by a local water-nymph called Symaethis. One day, after addressing his customary appeals to Galateia from a hill beside the sea, Polyphemos suddenly noticed that she was lying behind a rock with Acis, and he reverted to his former ogreish ways in his jealousy, tearing a huge rock out of the side of Mt Etna and hurling it at his rival to crush him beneath it. Galateia turned the blood of her dead lover into water as it trickled from under the rock, so creating the stream on Etna that bore his name, and she turned Acis himself into the horned god of the stream. In his new form as a god, he retained his original features except that he was now larger and his face was deep blue in colour. 93 This transformation story, which reappears in a few later Latin sources without any great variation, may have been devised by Ovid himself. If Polyphemos was occasionally presented as having succeeded in his desire, it was simply because Galateia seemed a suitable mother for Galates (or Galas), the eponym of the Galatians 94 (i.e. Celts of Gaul; the province of Galatia in Asia Minor acquired that name because Celtic immigrants settled there in the third century bc).

According to a tale from the late tradition, Nereus had an only son called NERITES who became the special favourite of Aphrodite while she was still living in the sea (for it is assumed here that she lived there for some while after being born from the sea-foam that surrounded the severed genitals of Sky, see p. 27). When she set off to Olympos to join the other gods, she wanted to take Nerites with her and offered him a pair of wings (evidently to equip him for the journey); but he preferred to remain beneath the waves with his parents and many sisters. Angered by the rejection, the goddess turned him into a sea-snail (nēritēs) and bestowed the wings on Eros instead, making him her constant companion from that time onwards. There is also mention of another story in which Nerites was a favourite of Poseidon and was transformed by Helios, who was angered for some reason by the speed at which he drove his chariot across the waves. 95

Thaumas and Electra and their daughters Iris and the Harpies

THAUMAS, the next son of Pontos, is an obscure figure with no legends or cult; perhaps he was another old man of the sea. His name could be interpreted as meaning ‘the wondrous’ in Greek, even if it was not necessarily of Greek origin. He married Electra, daughter of Oceanos, who bore him some swift-moving winged daughters; Iris and the Harpies. 96

IRIS was the goddess or spirit of the rainbow, the Greek name of which, iris, is still preserved in words such as iridescent. Since the rainbow that ‘the son of Cronos has set in the sky as a portent for men’ 97 is a sign and a wonder, Thaumas is very suitable father for her, and Electra is a suitable mother too, in so far as her name is suggestive of shining brightness. The chief role of Iris, where she is not simply a personification of the rainbow itself, is to act as a messenger for the gods. Although she monopolizes this role in the Iliad, Hermes largely displaces her in that regard in the subsequent literature (see p. 175). From the classical period onwards, she came to be regarded increasingly as the special servant of Hera, as Hermes is of Zeus, and Callimachus humorously portrays her as constantly crouching under the throne of the great goddess like a loyal hound, ever ready to run errands at her whim and call. 98 In works of art, which generally depict her as winged and often in a short tunic with a herald’s staff, she appears quite frequently in a subordinate role, acting as escort to the greater deities (as when she conducts them to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis) or sometimes as their cupbearer. Although ‘golden-winged Iris’, as Homer calls her, makes many appearances in the Iliad, carrying messages from Zeus (or from Hera on one occasion) to mortals or other gods, or sometimes acting on her own initiative, as when she summons the Winds to kindle the pyre of Patroclos, 99 she is rarely introduced into mythical narratives thereafter, making only two appearances that deserve to be singled out for mention. In the Cypria, an early epic in the Trojan cycle, it was she who first told Menelaos that his wife Helen had been abducted 100 (for he was away in Crete at the time, see pp. 456 and 460); and in Argonautic myth, she was said to have intervened to restrain the Boreads from killing her sisters, the Harpies (see p. 403). 101 That she had a place in cult is asserted by a single witness, the obscure Hellenistic author Samos of Delos, who says that she was worshipped on Hecate’s island near Delos. 102

The earliest accounts represent the HARPIES as being exactly what their name implies in Greek, ‘Snatchers’, as female death-spirits who snatch people away causing them to disappear suddenly and without trace. There is no indication that Hesiod viewed them as being in any way monstrous, and they were originally pictured as winged women who looked very similar to Iris, hence their enrolment as her sisters; alarming though they may have been in their nature as snatchers, vase-paintings from the classical period portray them as beautiful. As time progressed, however, they came increasingly to be imagined as ugly, bird-like creatures with large talons and a woman’s head.

Although Hesiod says nothing about their activities, merely observing that they keep pace with the blasts of the wind, 103 they are mentioned on three occasions in the Odyssey as female death-spirits who snatch people away, causing them to disappear in this mysterious fashion. In speaking in that poem of the long and unexplained absence of his father Odysseus, Telemachos remarks that he would not grieve as much if he knew that he had met with a glorious death in battle, ‘but as it is, the Harpies have spirited him away leaving no report behind; he has gone out of sight, out of knowledge, and has left me nothing but anguish and tears’. 104 As when the swineherd Eumaios uses such language in reference to Odysseus later in the poem, 105 this is really just a manner of speaking, but it provides some idea nonetheless of how the Harpies were commonly imagined. They appear in similar guise in a more strictly mythical context in Penelope’s account of the strange history of the daughters of Pandareos. Having been left as orphans after their parents were killed by the gods, so we are told, the girls benefitted from the favour of four great goddesses, for Aphrodite nourished them on cheese, honey, and wine, while Hera made them lovely and wise beyond all other women, Artemis made them grow tall, and Athena taught them handicrafts; but as Aphrodite was travelling to Olympos to ask Zeus to arrange suitable marriages for them, the Harpies snatched them away and handed them over to the Erinyes (Furies) as servants. 106 Although no explanation is offered for this sad turn in their fortunes, Penelope’s narrative tells us a great deal about how the Harpies were viewed in Homer’s time, for she states initially that the girls were carried away by storm-winds (thuellai) and shortly afterwards that they were snatched away by Harpuiai, as if that meant much the same. The Harpies are evidently visualized, then, as wind-spirits who can sweep people away, an idea reflected in their Hesiodic names, Aello (Stormwind) and Ocypete (Swiftfoot). Later authors add a third Harpy, Celaino (the Dark). 107

If the Harpies simply functioned as ‘snatchers’ who removed people from the company of the living and disappeared with them, they could hardly acquire any proper myths of their own; but in one story at least, they also appear as persecutors of the living. For in a well-known myth associated with the voyage of the Argonauts, they are said to have persecuted the Thracian seer-king Phineus by swooping down to snatch his food whenever he tried to eat, and by causing even the little that was left to reek of decay. 108 This feature of their activity is mentioned in tragedy 109 and was probably described in the Hesiodic Catalogue. They appear at their most unpleasant in this connection, as revolting creatures, which seem to be modelled on carrion-eating birds. For they are not only hideous and very greedy but are so filthy that they leave an intolerable stench behind and taint any food that they come into contact with. For the various stories that were offered to explain why Phineus came to be persecuted by them, and the story of how they were put to flight and perhaps even killed by two winged Argonauts, the Boreads, see p. 403. This is their only myth of the kind, apart from that of their brief persecution of Aeneas’ crew in the Aeneid (see p. 529), a story that was clearly invented by Vergil himself on the basis of the Argonautic legend. 110 According to the Iliad, Achilles’ immortal horses Xanthos and Balios (Chestnut and Dapple) were conceived by the Harpy Podarge (Swiftfoot) to Zephyros, the West Wind, as she was grazing on a meadow by the streams of Ocean, presumably in the form of a mare. 111 Two ideas seem to be at work here: a male wind-god and female wind-spirit would make excellent parents for wind-swift horses; and an ancient folk-belief suggesting that mares could be impregnated by the wind, rather as in Homer’s story.

The monstrous children and descendants of Phorcys and Ceto

PHORCYS, the last of the three sons of Pontos, resembled his brother Thaumas in having no myths or cult. The Odyssey applies the title of ‘old man of the sea’ to him, as to his brother Nereus, and he is of genealogical significance in the Theogony as the founder of a remarkable family of monsters, 112 which seems to take the form indicated in Table 3 (if two ambiguities in the text are rightly interpreted there). His wife and sister Ceto had an appropriate name accordingly in so far as ketos was a Greek term for a sea-monster,

The first children of Phorcys and Ceto were the Graiai and Gorgons, two groups of sisters whose myths are intertwined. The name of the GRAIAI simply means ‘old women’. After initially describing them as ‘fair-cheeked’, which would imply that they were young and attractive, Hesiod explains their name by saying that they were grey-haired from birth. 113 There is no suggestion as yet that the sisters were old and decrepit as is usually (though not invariably) the case in later accounts and portrayals. There are two of them here, the beautifully clad Pemphredo and saffron-robed Enyo; but a third sister, Deino or Perso, is commonly added to the group in subsequent accounts. 114 It came to be believed that they not only resembled very old women, but that the three of them possessed only a single eye and tooth between them, which they would pass from one to another so as to be able to see and eat. This feature of their legend is first reported by Pherecydes, who presumably found it in early epic. 115 Pherecydes is also the first author to mention that Perseus visited them when setting off to fetch the head of their sister, the Gorgon Medusa; in the usual account, he had been told that they could reveal the way to some nymphs who would provide him with some equipment that he needed for his quest, and he forced the Graiai to disclose this information by stealing their eye and tooth and refusing to hand them back until they spoke (see further on pp. 226–7). Or, in an exceptional account by Aeschylus, the Graiai acted as sentries for the Gorgons, and Perseus hurled their single eye into Lake Tritonis in Libya to prevent them from warning their sisters of his approach. 116

The GORGONS (Gorgones or Gorgous in Greek), who were three in number, were named Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa (properly Medousa in Greek). According to Hesiod, they lived beyond the outer Ocean towards the night, in the vicinity of the Hesperides (i.e. near the sunset in the far west); 117 or in another early epic account from the Cypria, they lived in the midst of the Ocean on a rocky island called Sarpedon. 118 It is commonly agreed in subsequent sources that they lived in or beyond the Ocean, though not always in the west. 119 Aeschylus places them close to the Graiai, however, as we have seen, and indicates that both sets of sisters lived in the east in a place that was accessible by land. 120 Although Hesiod does not trouble to describe the Gorgons, they were consistently pictured as monsters of hideous aspect, so very hideous that the mere sight of them was sufficient to turn the beholder to stone. Their grinning heads were wreathed with snakes, and they had fearsome teeth, or even tusks like wild boars.

As Hesiod already mentions, Medusa was distinguished from her sisters by the fact that she alone was mortal, and it was for that reason that Perseus chose her as his victim when he was sent to fetch a Gorgon’s head (see p. 226). 121 Hesiod has occasion to refer to this episode in the Theogony because, in the oddest of ways, it is of genealogical significance. For Medusa was pregnant at the time of her death, having previously slept with Poseidon in a soft meadow among spring flowers, and her unborn children, CHRYSAOR and PEGASOS, sprang from her neck when Perseus cut off her head. 122 The poet remarks that Chrysaor bore that name because he held a golden sword (chryseion aor) in his hands, but reveals nothing further about him except that he was the father of Geryoneus (see p. 55); 123 and later sources are no more informative. The visual evidence, which is also very limited, suggests that Chrysaor was not monstrous in form like so many members of this family. Pegasos appears prominently in myth by contrast, as the winged horse that carried Bellerophon through the air and helped him to perform his feats (see p. 221ff). Hesiod already refers to the way in which the two of them worked together to kill the monstrous Chimaira. 124

Although Homer makes no reference to the story of Perseus and Medusa, he does mention that ‘the head of that terrible monster, the Gorgon, a thing of fright and terror’, was attached to Athena’s aegis 125 (see p. 76); and it is at least possible that it was already accepted in Homer’s time that she had acquired it from Perseus, as is reported by later authors from Pherecydes onwards (see p. 228). 126 Homer also refers to the Gorgon’s head as an ornament on human armour; the crowning feature of Agamemnon’s shield, for instance, is a Gorgon’s head, which glares from it in a horrifying manner, with representations of Deimos and Phobos (Terror and Fear) on either side. 127 As images that were not only fearsome to behold but might also be credited with magical powers (e.g. for repelling harm and danger), such images were carved on breastplates and shields in historical times, and also on walls and gates. Portrayals from early Greek art accord well with the Homeric passages, showing a horrible grinning head with a flat nose, lolling tongue, and staring eyes. It seems likely that the Gorgon’s head or gorgoneion originated as an apotropaic image, existing independently as such before it was turned into a complete monster and thence into a trio of monsters (Figure 3.4).

The Gorgon Medusa, from a vase, sixth century

Figure 3.4   The Gorgon Medusa, from a vase, sixth century bc. © Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

To explain why Poseidon should have wished to sleep with Medusa, it sometimes came to be suggested that she had been exceptionally beautiful until she came to be transformed into the familiar monster. According to Ovid she was lovely in every respect, and especially for her hair, until Poseidon seduced her in a temple of Athena, to the great anger of the virgin goddess, who then transformed her hair into coils of snakes. 128 Or, in another story of the kind, Athena apparently took this action after Medusa angered her by claiming to rival her in beauty. It is appropriate in any case that Athena should have been the deity who transformed her because she wore Medusa’s head on her aegis. 129 Irrespective of such stories, the Gorgon’s head came to be portrayed in less monstrous form in artistic images from the fifth century bc onwards, in which she is often depicted as calmly and coldly beautiful, or, from about 300 bc, in pathetic mode with a look of horror or pain about her eyes.

Medusa’s head, or even her hair and blood, retained an extraordinary potency after her death. There are various tales in which Perseus is said to have made use of her head to turn his enemies to stone (see pp. 227–8); Heracles gave a lock of her hair to Sterope, daughter of Cepheus, to protect the Arcadian city of Tegea (see p. 264); Athena collected some of her blood and gave it to Asclepios, who used blood from the left side of her body to put people to death, and blood from the right side to cure people or even raise them from the dead (see p. 54); or in Euripides’ Ion, Athena is said to have given Erichthonios, king of Athens, a phial containing two drops of the Gorgon’s blood, one of which was a deadly poison and the other a cure for disease. 130 The people of Argos claimed that the Gorgon’s head was buried under a mound in their marketplace, where it doubtless served a useful function in averting harm. 131

Chrysaor, the strangely born son of Medusa, mated with the Oceanid Callirhoe to father a son of his own, GERYONEUS (or Geryones, or Geryon). 132 Although Hesiod merely describes him as three-headed, later accounts and images present him as being triple-bodied, with three upper bodies joined together at the waist, and either one pair of legs or three. It was sometimes supposed that he had wings too. 133 He lived in the outer Ocean in the remote west on the mythical island of Erytheia (‘the Red Island’, a suitable name for a place that lay close to the sunset); and he owned large herds of cattle, which were tended by a herdsman called Eurytion and were guarded by the dog Orthos or Orthros (see p. 251). When the Greeks came to know of Iberia, they came to suppose that Erytheia lay somewhere off its coast, sometimes identifying it with Gadeira (Cadiz, then not attached to the mainland) or another island of the area. 134 Or, Geryoneus’ home was located somewhere in Ambracia in north-western Greece, according to an alternative account 135 (possibly of ancient origin if it dates back to the days when this could have been viewed as a remote area that lay somewhere near the sunset). Living too far away to interact with mortals in any normal circumstances, Geryoneus was introduced into myth to provide a fearsome opponent for Heracles when he ventured beyond the bounds within which mortals are normally confined, and Hesiod refers to the story of their encounter in a way that indicates that it was already familiar, remarking that the hero killed Geryon along with his herdsman and dog in order to steal his cattle, see further on p. 251. 136

The next child of Phorcys and Ceto was ECHIDNA (‘Snake-woman’), who was formed like a beautiful woman in the upper half of her body, and otherwise like a terrible snake with speckled skin. The gods granted her a cave for a home, deep under the earth in the land of the Arimoi (probably somewhere in Asia Minor, see p. 80), where she lived far away from gods and mortals alike, feeding on raw meat. 137 As might be inferred from Hesiod’s account of her, she had little occasion to appear in mythical tales. At the most, Apollodorus records a strange tale from the Argolid in which Argos Panoptes (see p. 214) is said to have killed her in her sleep; she is described here as a daughter of Tartaros and Gaia, who used to prey on passers-by. 138

By mating with Typhon, a monster no less terrible than herself, Echidna founded a family of monstrous beasts. The three who were certainly children of her own (for there are ambiguities in Hesiod’s text) are Orthos, Cerberos, and the Lernaian hydra. 139 Orthos (or Orthros), who has already been mentioned as Geryoneus’ watchdog who was finally killed by Heracles, could be conveniently inserted into the genealogies at this point. Although nothing is stated in the Theogony about his appearance, he was evidently no ordinary dog, and in artistic images he is quite often portrayed with two heads. His brother Cerberos, the hound of Hades, is often said to have had many more than that, 50 in Hesiod’s account, or no less than a hundred according to Pindar and some later authors. 140 In works of art, however, for practical reasons, he is typically shown with three (or less commonly two), and many authors from the Attic tragedians onwards describe him as three-headed accordingly. 141 He usually has a snake for a tail, and may have serpents springing from other parts of his body also. The Iliad and Odyssey both allude to him, though not by name and without a description, mentioning that Heracles once brought him up from the Underworld (as his penultimate or final labour, see p. 254). 142 In contrast to the other monsters in this group, he made a valuable contribution to the ordering of the world by ensuring that the dead remained enclosed in the Underworld (see p. 100), and Heracles was thus obliged to set him free afterwards to allow him to return to his duties. The third child of Echidna and Typhon was the Lernaian hydra, which was reared by Hera in the marshes of Lerna in the Argolid to be a danger to Heracles. 143 Although Hesiod says nothing about its appearance, it was a huge snake (hydra simply means water snake in Greek), which was particularly dangerous in the usual tradition because of its many heads. Heracles killed it nevertheless as one of his labours, with a little help from his nephew Iolaos (see p. 254).

The next monster in the family of Echidna is the Chimaira. It is not clear from Hesiod’s language whether she was another child of Echidna or, as is perhaps more likely, offspring of the hydra. She was a composite being of improbable design who was formed like a huge lion with the head of a goat (chimaira) springing from her back, and with a snake for a tail. 144 Since her tail was tipped with a snake’s head, she had three heads overall. She lived in Lycia in Asia Minor until she was killed by Bellerophon (see p. 221). The dog Orthos mated with the Chimaira (or conceivably with his mother Echidna) to produce the last two members of the family, the Theban Phix, or Sphinx as she is more commonly known, and the Nemean lion. 145 The Sphinx was a monster of a familiar Near Eastern type with the body of a lion, the head of a woman, and wings. She persecuted the people of Thebes until Oedipus killed her or caused her to take her own life (see further on pp. 243ff.). As in the case of the Lernaian hydra, the Nemean lion was raised by Hera in the Argolid to provide a dangerous adversary for Heracles, who killed it as his first labour (see p. 243). Although it was doubtless very large and fierce, its only really exceptional feature was its impenetrable hide, which is first mentioned by Pindar and Bacchylides. 146 So, in sum, Echidna’s branch of the family was devised to account for the origin of some well-known monstrous beasts that were killed by Heracles and other famous heroes. In the form of some of these monsters, we may recognize the influence of non-Greek, chiefly Near Eastern, fancy on the Greek mind.

The last of the offspring of Phorcys and Ceto, after Echidna, was the huge snake that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides (see p. 255). Although nameless in the early tradition, it was sometimes called Ladon in Hellenistic and later times. 147 Heracles was sent to fetch some of its apples as his final or penultimate labour, and he doubtless killed the snake while doing so in the original story, although it is left unharmed in other accounts, see further on p. 257.

Phorcys ‘who rules over the barren sea’ is mentioned in the Odyssey as the father of another child, the sea-nymph Thoosa, who bore the Cyclops Polyphemos to Poseidon; 148 and, in the later tradition, another monster came to be added to his progeny, for the sea-monster Scylla, who presented such a threat to the Argonauts and to Odysseus (see pp. 409 and 509), was usually classed as a daughter of his from the classical period onwards. She was said to have been borne to him either by Hecate or by a certain Crataiis (who is named as her mother in the Odyssey). 149 According to a Hellenistic tale, Phorcys applied burning torches to Scylla’s body to bring her back to life again after Heracles killed her for stealing some of the cattle of Geryoneus. 150

The family of Night

After bearing her two radiant children Aither and Day to her brother Erebos, to bring the light of day into the world, Night generated many more children from herself, all associated with the dark in one way or another. In modern terms many of them might be described as abstractions, but Hesiod and his contemporaries would have viewed them from a different perspective, regarding them as dark and negative forces that exercise a real power in the world, as in a sense they most certainly do. They could thus also be regarded as divinities of a kind, even in the case of those that are barely personified.

Death, Sleep, and other personifications

Since the worst of all negative forces is death, which annuls our very existence, it is no surprise that Hesiod’s list of these children of Night should begin with hateful Moros (Fate, especially with regard to the time of our death), black Ker (Doom) and Thanatos (Death personified). Then comes Hypnos (Sleep), who was traditionally regarded as a brother of Death, as a privative force of a different but related kind, who robs us of all awareness and animation at night, at least in so far as we are not troubled by Oneiroi (Dreams), the illusory night-visions that disturb our sleep. 151

Whether as personified agents or simply as concepts, SLEEP and DEATH were always closely associated in the Greek mind. They reappear in a later passage in the Theogony, which states that they have neighbouring homes in a dark and gloomy place at the ends of the earth, near the home of their mother Night. 152 We are told that they are of opposite character even if their mode of action is comparable; for Sleep ‘roams peacefully over the earth and is kindly to mortals’ while Death ‘has a heart of iron, a heart within his breast of pitiless bronze, and keeps a firm grip on any mortal once he catches hold of him; and he is hateful even to the immortal gods’. 153 In the Iliad, which describes the pair as twins without saying anything about their parentage, they raise the corpse of Sarpedon from the battlefield at Troy at the order of that hero’s father Zeus to carry it home to Lycia. 154 This episode inspired some memorable vase-paintings, which typically show the brothers as winged and dressed in full armour. Elsewhere in the Iliad, Hera visits Sleep on Lemnos to ask him to lull her husband to sleep after she has made love with him, to distract him while some of his orders are being disobeyed; but the godling is initially reluctant, saying that Zeus had been furiously angry when he had performed this service for her on a previous occasion, and would have hurled him out of heaven into the sea if he had not taken refuge with Night. Hera wins him round, however, by promising to give him Pasithea, one of the Charites (Graces), as a bride. 155 Sleep acquired no further myths in the subsequent tradition apart from one that linked him to Endymion, an Eleian hero who was supposed to have sunk into an everlasting sleep (see p. 381); for according to the Hellenistic poet Licymnios, Sleep, who was presumably responsible for ensuring that he remained asleep, caused him to sleep with his eyes open so as to be able to enjoy the sight of their beauty. 156 Some late authors diverted themselves by painting poetic pictures of his realm. Ovid thus portrays him as sleeping on an ebony couch in a dark cave in the land of the Cimmerians, with his countless sons, the Dreams, lying around him on all sides, as the stream of Lethe (Oblivion) glides out from the bottom of the cave, murmuring over its gravelly bed to induce slumber, and poppies bloom outside surrounded by all kinds soporific herbs. 157

As for Death, there could be little role for him in serious myth because Hermes was thought to conduct the dead to the Underworld and Hades presided over them after they arrived there. In the two memorable myths in which he does arrive to haul mortals away to the world below merely to meet with humiliation, he is very much a figure from folklore. When Death arrived at Corinth to fetch Sisyphos, the cunning hero managed to defer his death for a while at least by tying him up (see further on p. 553); 158 and in Euripides’ version of the story of Alcestis, Heracles lay in wait for Death when he was due to fetch her from her tomb, and wrestled her away from him to return her to her husband (see p. 146). 159

The next children of Night in the list are Momos (Blame or Censure) and Oizus (Pain). 160 As a personification of fault-finding, MOMOS makes some appearance in fable and myth as a sort of licensed jester who carps at the works and deeds of the gods. He makes one intercession of real importance in a myth from early epic, in connection with the origins of the Trojan War; for when Earth once complained that she was being weighed down by the countless multitudes of impious mortals who were swarming over her surface, Momos found fault with the plans that Zeus developed to resolve the problem, and proposed instead that it would be better to provoke a great war between Europe and Asia, see further on p. 454. 161 At a less serious level, he figures in an Aesopic fable in which Zeus, Prometheus, and Athena invite him to judge their handiwork, a bull, a man, and a house respectively. He finds fault with the bull, saying that its eyes should have been placed on its horns to enable it to see what it is attacking; he finds fault with the man, saying that his mind should have been placed on the outside of his body to make his bad qualities visible to all; and he finds fault with the house too, saying that it should have been mounted on wheels to enable people to move if they should acquire bad neighbours; but this is all too much for Zeus, who is so infuriated by his carping that he banishes him from Olympos forever. 162 Momos’ criticism of the bull is already mentioned by Aristotle, though in a somewhat different form. 163 According to another tale, Momos was dismayed to find that Aphrodite was so very beautiful that he could find nothing at all to criticize in her, and salved his honour as best he could by making fun of her sandals. 164

The Hesperides and the Moirai or Fates

We arrive next at some more substantial figures, the Hesperides, a group of nymphs who lived at the westernmost edges of the earth, and the Moirai (Fates) and Keres (Dooms or death-spirits). 165 The Moirai and Keres correspond to the above-mentioned Moros and Ker, as the goddesses who appoint a person’s death or doom, but the Moirai in particular are visualized more clearly as personal beings in so far as they perform their function as a group.

Although the HESPERIDES or ‘Daughters of Evening’ were lovely nymphs who caused no real harm to anyone, they are included among the children of Night because they lived near the sunset, and close to the realm of darkness that lay beyond. They had been stationed there in the garden of the gods to watch over a wondrous tree (or trees) that bore golden apples, and they were aided in their task by a fearsome snake, born to Phorcys and Ceto (see p. 57), which provided a more effective deterrent to any prospective thief. 166 Their duties were none too strenuous in any case, because the garden lay at such a remote distance that no one ever attempted to steal the apples until Heracles was sent to fetch some as one of his labours (see p. 255); in connection with that labour, as we will see, the garden and those who lived there were sometimes relocated to the remote north. The Hesperides were famous for their beautiful voices and would doubtless have entertained themselves by singing and dancing as was customary for nymphs. There were usually thought to be three of them, although they vary in number from two to seven, and they are generally named as Hespere (or Hesperie, or Hesperathousa) and Erytheia (or Erytheis), and Aigle, 167 in reference to the evening, the red of the evening sky, and the brightness of day respectively.

The MOIRAI or FATES were a group of goddesses who assigned individual destinies to mortals at birth, particularly with regard to the timing of their death. The word moira means ‘portion’ or ‘allotment’ and could be used accordingly as a term for a portion of land, or a person’s portion at a meal, or the share that is allotted to a man when spoils are being divided. By a natural extension, the word could be applied to describe the lot or fate that is apportioned to a person in life; and the awesome power that apportions our fates could thus be personified as Moira (Fate or Necessity), or as this trio of Moirai or ‘Apportioners’.

These Moirai are initially classed in the Theogony as children of Night, in accordance with their nature as appointers of death, but are later reclassified in a part of the poem that was added after Hesiod’s time, now being described as daughters of Zeus and Themis (Law or Right Order) 168 because they contribute to the proper ordering of the world under the authority of Zeus (see p. 74). It would seem that they originated not as abstract powers of destiny but as birth-spirits, much like the ones who in the modern folklore of the area visit new-born children and determine what their portion in life shall be. The famous myth in which the Moirai appear after the birth of Meleager to foretell what his lot shall be, and also to specify a condition for his death (see p. 283), was surely rooted in very ancient folklore. In their capacity as goddesses who appoint the fate of mortals, they were objects of cult in many parts of the Greek world, as inscriptions and monuments abundantly testify. They do not appear at all frequently in myth however. Although one or all of them may be portrayed as attending the births of gods or mortals, they have little occasion to make any specific intervention in mythical tales unless they want to reveal some feature of a person’s fate, as in the case of Meleager, or else are required to take action when a person’s fate needs to be altered in some way. One of the Moirai, Clotho, is thus presented by Pindar as superintending the revival of Pelops when he is brought to life again after being killed by his father 169 (see p. 420 for the circumstances); and in a tale from Aeschylus, Apollo is said to have made the sisters drunk in order to persuade them to allow a substitute to die in place of Admetos (see p. 146). 170 Apollodorus reports that they helped Zeus to quell two major revolts by tricking Typhon into eating some fruits that would gravely weaken him (see p. 80) and by clubbing two Giants to death with bronze cudgels during the war between the gods and the Giants. 171

The Moirai are regularly represented as spinners from the earliest times. Although Homer makes only a single reference to the Moirai in the plural (in remarking that they have given an enduring heart to man), he speaks of the thread that is spun by Moira for Hector at the time of his birth; and the klōthes (spinners) who are mentioned in the Odyssey as spinning people’s fates at the time of their birth may surely be identified with the Moirai. 172 Hesiod and later authors report that there are three Moirai named Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Apportioner), and Atropos (the Inflexible); 173 in their rare appearances in art, they are shown as handsome women, and they may be imagined in literature as being very old. The thread that they spin represents or carries the destiny of each successive individual, and when it is broken, a life is brought to an end. Later poetical imagination elaborated this imagery in various ways, making the Fates spin a gold thread, for example, when spinning the fate of a particularly fortunate individual, or resume an abandoned task when someone is recalled to life. 174 Their Hesiodic names might already suggest a division of labour, with Clotho spinning the thread, Lachesis determining its allotted length in her nature as apportioner, and the inexorable Atropos cutting it off at the time of a person’s death. 175 Or, Atropos may have the past as her province, since it is unalterable, while Lachesis is concerned with the future, and Clotho presides over the present, spinning each person’s specific destiny. 176

Their sisters the KERES, who were death-spirits in a narrower sense, are occasionally mentioned in the Homeric epics as bearing people away to death, but that is really little more than a manner of speaking, and they rarely appear in subsequent mythical narratives, although they may be shown in vase-paintings as small winged figures who are present at death-scenes.

Heracles and a Ker. Drawing after an Attic vase.

Figure 3.5   Heracles and a Ker. Drawing after an Attic vase.

More personifications, and Eris (Strife) and her self-generated children

The last group of beings in Hesiod’s list of the children of Night represent various other negative features of human life, namely Nemesis (Retribution), Apate (Deceit), Philotes, Geras (Old Age), and hard-hearted Eris (Strife). 177 Philotes, whose name means friendship or love, is a perhaps rather unexpected member of the group; in the present context she evidently represents pleasure of love or sex, and finds a place here in so far as such pleasure is associated with the dark and all too often with guile or deceit. As for GERAS, who leads us towards death, he is occasionally shown in the company of Heracles in vase-paintings, as a bent and emaciated old man; but the hero confronts him confidently enough, even threatening him with his club, as befits someone who is destined to escape old age and death by achieving divine status. NEMESIS, the personification of retribution and righteous indignation, was honoured in cult at Rhamnous in Attica as well as at Smyrna and other Ionian cities, and was said to have been the mother of Helen of Troy in one tradition at least; for according to a tale from early epic, she conceived Helen to Zeus when the two of them mated in bird-form, see further on pp. 451–2.

ERIS or STRIFE, the last-born child of Night, added a further branch to the family by generating a series of children of her own, representing many of the harmful and destructive things that can arise from conflict and discord, namely Toil (Ponos), Oblivion (Lethe), Famine, Sorrows, Fights, Battles, Murders, Manslayings, Quarrels, Lies, Disputes, Lawlessness, Delusion (Ate), and Oath (Horcos). 178 This is allegory of the most obvious kind for the most part; the last two children alone require further comment.

ATE represents the delusion or clouding of the mind that leads people to commit acts of ill-considered folly. There is a striking portrayal of her mode of action in the nineteenth book of the Iliad, when Agamemnon tries to excuse himself for having robbed Achilles of his prize of war, Briseis (see p. 473), by claiming that he had been deluded by Ate who blinds all men, an accursed being ‘who has delicate feet, for it is not on the ground that she walks, no, she tramples over the heads of men, bringing harm to mankind and ensnaring one or another’. 179 Agamemnon goes on to say that even Zeus himself had once been deluded by Ate, when Hera had tricked him into swearing an oath that would enable her to ensure that the inheritance that he had intended for his son Heracles would go to another man (see p. 237). Zeus had been so angry to discover how he had been deluded that he had seized Ate by her hair and had hurled her down to the earth, where she now works her mischief on mortals. 180 According to Apollodorus, she fell to earth on the hill of Ate in the Troad, on the spot where Ilos would later found the city of Troy (see p. 442). 181 HORCOS (Oath) is included among the children of Eris in so far as he is connected with perjuries, for he personifies the curse that will be activated if a person swears a false oath. Hesiod expresses the matter in allegorical terms in the Works and Days, by stating that the Erinyes (Furies) assisted at the birth of Horcos when Eris brought him to birth to bring trouble to those who perjure themselves. 182

Eris herself has only a single proper myth, but one of some importance, which tells how she stirred up the quarrel between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite that would be settled through the judgement of Paris, and so helped to set in course the train of events that led to the outbreak of the Trojan War (see further on p. 454). 183 As in the case of the interrelated story of Momos mentioned above, and also the story of Zeus’s pursuit of Nemesis, which resulted in the conception of Helen, this myth can be traced back to the Cypria, the first epic in the Trojan cycle; it would seem that the author of this poem liked to assign a more solid role to personifications of this kind than was usual in high literature. Homer refers to Eris in the Iliad along with other minor deities and personifications who stir up frenzy on the battlefield; at the beginning of the eleventh book, Zeus sends him down to inspire the Greeks with ardour for battle, which he achieves by standing in the middle of their camp and uttering a terrible piercing cry. 184


Hes. Theog. 404–12.

Ibid. 411–52.

Hom. Hymn. Demeter 24–5, 52–9, 438–40.

E.g. Eur. Helen 569–70, Ion 1048–50, Soph. fr. 492 Nauck, Arist. fr. 500, 501 Kock.

See e.g. Arist. Wealth 595 with schol. 594.

Eur. Med. 259ff., cf. A.R. 3.251–2, 477–80, 528–30, etc.; Theoc. 210–16.

Schol. A.R. 1.544.

Hes. Theog. 133.

Hom. Il. 14.197–204; Pher. 3F18a.

Aesch. Prom. Bound 286ff.

Hyg. Astr. 2.1.

Hes. Theog. 337–70; Oceanids look after young, 347.

Hes. Theog. 361.

Ibid. 383–5.

Ibid. 386–403.

Ibid. 782–806.

Aesch. Prom. Bound 1ff.

E.g. D.S. 5.23.3, Hyg. Fab. 154; already implied Eur. Hippol. 735–41.

Hdt. 3.115.

Aratus 360.

Ov. Met. 8.576–89.

Ibid. 8.590–610.

Moschus 6, Verg. Aen. 3.694–6; early allusions, Ibycus 42, Pi. Nem. 1.1–2.

Ov. Met. 5.572–641.

Paus. 5.7.2–3.

Hom. Il. 22.147–52 (two springs), 20.73–4 (two names).

Ibid. 21.130–2.

Ibid. 21.209–382.

E.g. Apollod. 3.12.1–2.

Hes. Theog. 371–4.

Pi. Ol. 7.54–76.

Eur. Phaethon fr. 781.10–12 Nauck, cf. Eratosth. 24 (citing Aeschylus, but the part of the story in which the two gods are identified may have been drawn from elsewhere). For the radiance of Apollo, e.g. Hom. Hymn. Apollo 440–7.

E.g. Hom. Hymn 31 to Helios (across sky on chariot, etc.), Eur. Ion 82 (four-horse chariot), 122 (wings), Ov. Met. 2.153–4 and Hyg. Fab. 183 (names of horses), Eur. fr. 779.8 Nauck (riding on horseback).

Hom. Il. 8.485 (plunges into Ocean), Aesch. fr. 186 Nauck (washes self and horses in western sea after journey); for the cup of the sun, see Athen. 11.469d ff, citing a string of poets from Stesichorus (= 185) and Mimnermus (= 12) onwards.

Hom. Od. 12.127–41, 260–425.

Ibid. 8.267–71, Hom. Hymn. Demeter 62–81.

Pasiphae, first Isocr. Helen 27; Aloeus, Eumelos fr. 3 Bernabe.

Hom. Od. 12.132–8, schol. Od. 17.208.

Eur. fr. 771 Nauck, Ov. Met. 1.750ff.

Hes. fr. 311 (= Hyg. Fab. 154).

Eur. fr. 779 Nauck.

D.S. 5.23–3–4, Hyg. Fab. 154, Ov. L.c.

Ov. Met. 1.750–2.324, cf. Eur. Phaethon fr., Lucret. 5.396–405, Hyg. Fab. 154.

Hyg. Fab. 152A.

Hes. fr. 311, Aesch. fr. 68–73 Nauck, A.R. 4.598ff., D.S. 5.23.2, Ov. Met. 2.340–66.

Hyg. Fab. 152A.

Ibid. 154, Ov. Met. 2.367–80, Verg. Aen. 10.189–93.

Ov. Met. 4.190–270, Westermann, anon., p. 348.

The artistic record is more helpful on these matters than the literary record, but see for instance Pi. Ol. 3.19–20, Ov. Fast. 4.374, Serv. Aen. 5.721.

Hom. Hymn. 32 to Selene (bore Pandeia to Zeus, 14–6).

Verg. Georg. 3.191–3, with Serv. ad loc. referring to Nicander.

Hom. Hymn. Hermes 99–100.

Aesch. fr. 170 Nauck.

Theoc. 2.10–1, etc.

Hom. Hymn. Hermes 99–100.

Hom. Hymn. 21 to Helios 4–7.

Eur. Phoen. 175 with schol., schol. Arat. 445.

Alcman 57.

E.g. Hom. Od. 2.1 and Il. 19.1 respectively.

Hom. Il. 11.1–2, Od. 5.1–2.

Hom. Il. 11.1–2, Od. 5.1–2.

Hellanic. 4F140, schol. Lyc. 18, Serv. Georg. 3.328.

Hom. Il. 3.150–3.

Schol. Il. 11.1.

Hes. Theog. 984–5.

Hom. Od. 5.121–4.

Ibid. 15.249–51.

Hes. Theog. 986–91.

Apollod. 1.4.4.

Hes. Theog. 378–82.

Hom. Il. 23.193–218.

Aiolos, Hom. Od. 10.21.8.

Hes. Theog. 375–7.

Ibid. 507–12.

Ibid. 514–6.

Apollod. 1.2.3.

E.g. Hyg. Fab. 150.

Hes. Theog. 517–20, Hom. Od. 1.52–4.

Paus. 5.11.5, 5.18.4.

Hdt. 4.184.

Hes. fr. 169.

Hes. Theog. 233–9.

Ibid. 234–6.

Nereus as old man of sea, Hom. Od. 24.58, cf. Il. 1.358, 18.36, etc.; Proteus, Od. 4.365; Phorcys, Od. 13.96, 345

Pher. 3F16, Apollod. 2.5.11.

Panyasis fr. 7A Davies (from Athen. 11.469d).

Horace Odes 1.15.

Ael. N.A. 14.28, Lucian Tragodop. 87.

Hes. Theog. 240–64.

Hom. Il. 18.36–8, 49–50 (with father in cave under sea), Hdt. 7.191 (Persians offer sacrifice to them), Eur. Ion 1078–86 (out of sea to dance), Iph. Taur. 427–9, Iph. Aul. 1054–7; Ov. Met. 2.11–4 (habits as portrayed in imaginary work of art); Theoc. 7.59–60 (with halcyons in waves).

Philoxenus Kyklops fr. 815–24 PMG.

Theoc. 11.11ff.

Ov. Met. 13.750–897, cf. Sil. Ital. 14.221ff., Serv. Ecl. 7.37, 9.39.

Et. Magn. s.v. Galatia (citing Timaeus), D.S. 5.24

Ael. N.A. 14.28.

Hes. Theog. 265–9.

Hom. Il. 11.27–28.

Call. Hymn 4.228–39.

For Zeus, Hom. Il. 2.786ff., 8.397ff., 11.185ff., 15.143ff., 24.74ff., 143ff.; for Hera, 18.166ff.; summons winds, 23.198ff., also acts on own initiative, 3.121ff., 5.353ff.; golden-winged, 8.398, 11.185.

Proclus on Cypria; for other early appearances, see Hom. Hymn. Demeter 314ff., Hom. Hymn. Apollo 102ff.

A.R. 2.284–300.

Cited by Athenaeus, 14.645b.

Hes. Theog. 268.

Hom. Od. 1.241–3.

Ibid. 14.371.

Ibid. 20.63–78.

Hes. Theog. 267, cf. Apollod. 1.9.21 (gives variants); Celaino added, e.g. Verg. Aen. 3.211, Hyg. Fab. 14.

A.R. 2.188–93, cf. Apollod. 1.9.21, Hyg. Fab. 14, 18.

Aesch. Eum 50–1.

Verg. Aen. 3.210–62.

Hom. Il. 16.148–51.

Suid. s.v. Kyllaros citing Stesichorus; Schol. Il. 23.346, Q.S. 4.569–70.

Hes. Theog. 270–336.

Ibid. 270–1.

Ibid. 273, cf. Pher. 3F11 and Apollod. 2.4.2 (Deino added), Heraclit. de Incred. 13 (Perso).

Pher. 3F11.

Aesch. Phorkides frr., cf. Prom. Bound 792–800 (single eye and tooth, live near Gorgons).

Hes. Theog. 274–8.

Cypria fr. 26 Davies.

E.g. Pher. 3F11, Apollod. 2.4.2, schol. Pi. Pyth. 10.72b.

Aesch. Prom. Bound 788ff.

Hes. Theog. 276–7, cf. Pher. 3F11 (Hermes and Athena point her out to Perseus as the only mortal Gorgon), Apollod. 2.4.2.

Hes. Theog. 276–83.

Ibid. 325.

Hom. Il. 5.738–42, 11.32–7.

Pher. 3F11, Apollod. 2.4.3.

Hom. Il. 11.36–7.

Ov. Met. 4.790–803.

Apollod. 2.4.3.

Eur. Ion 999–1005.

Paus. 2.21.6

Hes. Theog. 287–8.

E.g. Stes. 186 (six-armed, six-legged, and winged), Aesch. Ag. 870 and Eur. Madness of Heracles 423–4 (triple-bodied), Apollod. 2.5.10 (three bodies joined together at waist).

Hdt. 4.8, Str. 3.2.11, 3.5.4, Apollod. 2.5.10, Pliny N.H. 4.120.

Hecat. 1F26.

Hes. Theog. 289–94.

Hes. Theog. 295–305.

Apollod. 2.1.2.

Hes. Theog. 306–18.

Fifty heads, Hes. Theog. 312, Simon. 569; a hundred, Pi. fr. 249a SM, Horace Odes 2.13.34; nine, Alcaeus 443.

Soph. Trach. 1098, Eur. Madness of Heracles, 611, Apollod. 2.5.2, Verg. Aen. 6.417–8, Hyg. Fab. 15, etc.

Hom. Il. 8.367–8, Od. 11.623–6.

Hes. Theog. 313–5.

Ibid. 319–25, cf. Homer’s description in Il. 6.179–82, and Apollod. 2.3.1.

Hes. Theog. 326–32.

Pi. Isth. 6.47–8, Bacch. 13.46–54.

Hes. Theog. 333–6; first called Ladon, A.R. 4.1396; hundred-headed according to Pher. 3F16b, cf. Apollod. 2.5.11

Hom. Od. 1.70–3.

By Hekate, e.g. Acus. 2F42, A.R. 4.828–9; by Crataiis, Apollod. Epit. 7.20.

Lyc. 44–8 and schol.

Hes. Theog. 211–12.

Ibid. 758–61.

Ibid. 762–6.

Hom. Il. 16.666–83.

Hom. Il. 14.229–91.

Licymnius 771 PMG, Diogenian. 4.60.

Ov. Met. 11.592ff., cf. Stat. Theb. 10.76ff.

Pher. 3F119.

Eur. Alc. 1139–42.

Hes. Theog. 214.

Cypria fr. 1 Davies.

Aesop fable 124 Chambry, cf. Babrius 59, Lucian D.D. 28.2, Nigrinus 32.

Aristotle Parts of Animals 3.2.

Aristid. Orat. 28.136.

Hes. Theog. 215–22.

Hes. Theog. 215–6 (Hesperides), 334–5 (snake), Eur. Hippol. 742–3, Madness of Heracles 394–9, A.R. 4.1396–9 (snake first named as Ladon) with schol. Ibid., Apollod. 2.5.11, etc.

A.R. 4.1427–8, Apollod. 2.5.11, Hes. fr. 360 (dub.).

Hes. Theog. 217 and 903 respectively.

Pi. Ol. 1.26–7.

Aesch. Eum. 723–8.

Apollod. 1.6.2, 1.6.3.

Hom. Il. 24.49, 24.209–10 (cf. 20.127–8), Od. 7.197–8.

Hes. Theog. 905, Shield 258–60, Apollod. 1.3.1, etc.

Seneca Apocol. 4 (thread turned to gold as Nero’s fate is being spun), Stat. Theb. 8.59, iterataque pensa Sororum (on Eurydice being restored to Orpheus).

Isidorus Etymologiae 8.11.93, cf. Anth. Latin. 792 Riese (tres sunt fatales quae ducunt fila sorores;/Clotho baiulat, Lachesis trahit, Atropos occat).

Ps.Aristotle On the Universe 7.401b18ff.

Hes. Theog. 224–5.

Ibid. 226–32.

Hom. Il. 19.91–4, cf. Pl. Symp. 195de.

Hom. Il. 19.95–131.

Apollod. 3.12.3.

Hes. W.D. 802–4.

Proclus on Cypria.

Hom. Il. 11.3–14.

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