Category Archives: Oracle
Etymology: “Unseen” or “The Unseen One”
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Ἁιδης, Αιδωνευς, Áïdes (Ionic and Epic Greek), Aïdoneús, Áïdos, Áïdos, Áïda, Ais, Eubouteous, Háides, Klymenos, Pluto or Ploutos (“wealth” or “the rich one,”) Pluteus,Pluton, Ploutodótes, Ploutodotr (“Giver of Wealth”), Pylartes, Stygeros, ‘unseen’, Zeus Katachthonios (“Zeus of the Underworld”)
Epithets: Agesander, Agesilaos (“fetcher of men,” “carries away all” or “leader of men”), Chthonian Zeus, Clymenus (“notorious,”) Eubuleus (“good counsel” or “well-intentioned”), Hegesilaus, Polydegmon (“Reciever of Many Guests”)
Hades is an ancient chthonic deity who best known as the God and Ruler of the Underworld, so much so, that the Underworld would come to be known by his name.
Animal: Black Rams, Dog, Rooster, Screech-Owl, Serpents
Patron of: The Underworld, the Dead, Wealth
Plant: Asphodel, Cypress, Mint, Narcissus, Pomegranate, White Poplar
Sphere of Influence: Death, Grief
Symbols: Cerberus, Cornucopia, Scepter, Narcissus, Key of Hades
Early Greek Depictions
In early Greek art and even mythology, Hades doesn’t make many appearances as this is a deity whom the ancient Greeks didn’t want to attract the attention of.
Most of Hades’ early representations in art are mostly pottery and statuary where he’s not always clearly defined. The classical era of art, especially those that depict the Rape of Persephone will show Hades with varying ages depending on the artist. Sometimes Hades is shown as looking away from the other gods to represent their disdain for him.
In Greek pottery, Hades is often shown having a dark beard and shown as a stately figure seated on an ebony thrown. In Greek statuary, Hades is often shown with his three-headed dog Cerberus for quick and easy recognition.
Hades is known to drive a chariot, drawn by four black horses, which makes for a fearsome and impressive sight. Hades is often thought of as being very dour and stern, unmoved by prayers.
When identified and represented as Plouton, Hades is seen in a more positive light. As Plouton, he is shown holding a cornucopia that represents the riches and fertility of the earth.
Cult & Worship
Hades was a grim and fearsome seeming deity that living humans did not mention by name lightly. As the god of the dead, one simply did not mention Hades by name lest they draw his attention and potentially an early death. Instead, Hades would be called by a few different euphemisms and epithets.
Such was the reluctance of any followers that people were hesitant to swear oaths in Hades’ name and would avert their gazes when performing sacrifices to him. The sacrifices made to Hades were black animals like sheep. Human sacrifices to Hades were outright rejected even though other sources will try to say that such human sacrifices were done. The blood from the animal sacrifices would be dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person offering the sacrifice would turn away their face. When propitiated, people would slap or hit the ground to make sure that Hades heard them. Finally, every hundreds, festivals would be held to honor Hades. These were known as the Secular Games.
Temples – Hades was worshiped throughout Greece and Italy. It is known he had a sacred grove and temple in Elis. This temple would only be opened once a year. Another temple is known to have been in Pylos Triphyliacus near Mount Menthe. Finally, there was a sacred grove to the Erinnyes in Athens and another grove in Olympia.
Hades does have a part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. Hade’s role in the mysteries comes in the story of his abducting Persephone to the Underworld to be his wife and Queen. The Mysteries concern more the worshiping of Demeter and Persephone.
While we don’t know as much about the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries are another matter as there have been plenty of surviving Orphic Hymns and texts that have been found and translated. There’s plenty of evidence that has been left behind found through out all of southern Italy. Much of which is the connection of Dionysus’ death and resurrection symbolisms in myth.
Hades = Dionysus!?!
In connection to the previously mentioned Eleusinian Mysteries, starting with the philosopher Heraclitus; he states that Hades and Dionysus are merely the same deity with different aspects to them, the essence of life. A Karl Kerenyi points out that in her grief, Demeter refused to drink wine, a symbol of Dionysus, especially after Persephone’s abduction. Further, one of the Dionysus’ epithets is Chthonios, meaning “the subterranean.” Demeter knows full well that its Dionysus who has abducted her daughter and that Hades is merely an alias.
Though this is just one level of the Orphic tradition trying to explain a deity who has a dual nature. Many of Hades epitaphs are also the same epitaphs used for Dionysus. Names such as: Chthonios (“the Subterranean”), Euclius (“glorious” or “renowned”) and Eubouleus (“Good Counselor”)
Speaking of Eubouleus, that epitaph is also applied to Zeus…. When covered as a deity by himself, Eubouleus is depicted as a youthful representation of the Lord of the Underworld.
Zeus Katachthonios – Zeus of the Underworld
Another important epitaph of Hades in the Orphic tradition. By calling Hades the name: “Zeus Katachthonios” they could connect him to his brother Zeus and why there are stories of Zeus and Persephone coupling up to have children like Melinoe and Zagreus.
Homer calls Hades “the Infernal Zeus” and “Grisly God”.
It all makes for an interesting connection. Hades as the God of Death, Dionysus as the God of Life and Zeus tying them both together to represent the birth, death and resurrection of a deity.
What’s In A Name
The exact origins for Hades’ name have been lost to antiquity. It is however been agreed to translate as: “The Unseen One.” Plato’s dialogue of Cratylus has an extensive section devoted to the etymology of Hades’ name. Socrates argues that the name doesn’t mean “unseen,” but instead means: “his knowledge of all noble things.” More modern linguists lean towards the “unseen” meaning though another idea put forward is the meaning: “the one who presides over meeting up” referring to death.
Given his role as Lord of the Underworld, Hades is the deity liked least and people were reluctant to speak his name lest they bring unwanted attention to themselves. Even the other gods are said to have avoided Hades’ company.
In the 5th century B.C.E., the ancient Greeks began calling Hades by the name of Plouton, meaning “wealth” or “riches.” This name served more as a euphemism as the Greeks didn’t want to draw the attention of the God of Death. In addition, not only is the Underworld were the dead go and that’s who Hades rules over, but wealth and riches in the form of gold, silver and various gems can be found there.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Persephone – The daughter of Demeter whom Hades himself abducted. She is the Goddess of Spring, Vegetation and Fertility before becoming Queen of the Underworld.
He is the fourth child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
It should be noted that by some accounts, Hades being the God of the Underworld is thought to be infertile, so any of Hades and Persephone’s children are the result of Zeus coming to have sex with his brother’s wife… and his own daughter. If you ask me, that’s a bit limited in thinking, just because Hades is lord of the Underworld, doesn’t mean he will be infertile. Of course, Zeus as the father works in the Orphic tradition when you want him to be the father of everyone.
The Erinyes – Also known as the Furies, they are sometimes called the daughters of Hades, though they’re actually earth-born.
Macaria – Death or Blessed. It’s just known that she is a daughter of Hades. There is a proverb: “Go to blessedness.” This is a euphemism for death as it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.
Melinoe – A chthonic goddess identified with Hecate. In the Orphic tradition, she is the daughter of Persephone and Zeus in the guise of Hades. So, she’s not really Hades’ daughter and it’s possible Persephone claimed her as Hades if she didn’t know of Zeus’ ruse.
Zagreus – A minor deity in Greek mythology, he is called the “first Dionysus” in the Orphic tradition. In the Orphic tradition, Zagreus is the son of Zeus and Persephone, he is torn apart by the Titans and reborn later. The earliest mentions of Zagreus have him as a consort to Gaia and the god of the Underworld. The Greek playwright, Aeschylus connects Zagreaus with Hades so that they are either Father (Hades) and Son (Zagreus) or that they’re the same deity. Linking Dionysus into the myth of being Hades seems to stem from the myths of Zagreus.
As much as Hades is a major Greek Deity, as his domain and realm is that of the Underworld where he rules over the dead, he isn’t one of the Olympian Gods.
Simply because that isn’t where Hades spent all his time. Except for the one time that he happened to be above ground and fell in love with Persephone, Hades spends all his time underground.
Attendants of Hades
Ruling the Underworld isn’t easy. There are all those souls of the deceased coming in. While Hades is sure to have the help if his wife and queen, Persephone, there’s still a lot to be done.
Cerberus – A Most Loyal Hound
Cerberus is the three-headed dog of Hades that guards the gate to the Underworld. It is with amusement that Cerberus has the meaning of “spot.” There’s something very humanizing and endearing in a deity naming their dog Spot.
Also known as the Furies, they are an earth-born trio of chthonic deities whose job is to mete out retribution and vengeance. If you went against the natural order of things, perjured, broke an oath, murder, unfilial conduct, a child upsetting their parent…. These are the deities who came to deal with you. In their connection to Hades in the Underworld, the Erinyes would torment the souls of criminals.
I think its fair to say I wouldn’t want them angry with me, that way lays madness and likely some horrifying illness.
Judges of the Dead
The three judges of the dead are: Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus. These three judges would sentence the souls of the dead, determine their guilt on if they would go to Tartarus or if deemed innocent enough, to pass on to the Elysian Fields.
In Plato’s Gorgias, a story is told to Socrates that the reason that there are three judges is so that everyone who dies will be judged fairly. The original judges had been there since Cronos’ time and were prone to letting anyone who was wealthy enough, dressed fanically enough and had witness who would claim that an undeserving, wicked soul was being allowed to pass on to the Elysian Fields. As these judges were judging people while still alive on their last day on earth.
Hades and the overseers in charge of the Isles of the Blessed came before Zeus with a complaint about this.
Zeus said he would put a stop to this practice and decreed that there would be stop to anyone having any foreknowledge of their death. The dead would be stripped bare of everything before judgement and would stand naked. The judge too would likewise be naked… clearly a metaphor for the naked truth and nothing hidden. The judge would hold the soul of the deceased in their hands to determine it’s worthiness without any of the entrapments of life. Aeacus and Rhadamanthus would determine a soul’s fate with Minos to act as a tie breaker if there were any doubt to where a soul’s final destination would be.
Birth Of A God
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Hades and all his siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronus that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronus eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia. Incidentally, Hades is the last of Cronus’ children that is either regurgitated or comes out after Zeus splits their father open.
In other versions I have found of this story, Zeus meets with Metis who concocts a drug for Zeus to give Cronus so that he disgorges or vomits up the stone and all of his children.
There is a ten-year long divine war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Hades and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
During the war, Gaia gave a prophesy to Zeus that he would have victory over the Titans by freeing the Cyclops who were then prisoners in Tartaros. Zeus slew Campe, the jail-keeper of the Cyclops. As a reward and thanks for releasing them, the Cyclcops forged weapons for the three brothers. Thunderbolts for Zeus, a Trident for Poseidon and a Bident for Hades along with a magical helmet of invisibility.
During this war, Hades used his helmet of invisibility to sneak into the Titans’ camp and destroy their weapons. After the war, the Titans were imprisoned within Tartoros and the Hecatoncheires were placed in charge of guarding the new prisoners.
Dividing the Spoils of War – After defeating Cronus and all of his father’s followers, the three brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus divided up rulership of the cosmos between them. Hades would become ruler of the Underworld, Poseidon would become ruler of the seas and Zeus would become ruler of the air. The earth, the domain of Gaia, would be available to all three gods.
Iliad – The Iliad describes the three brothers as pulling lots to determine who would rule which realm.
Hades & Typhon – While not exactly a flattering story of Hades; the story is that of Zeus battling the giant monstrous serpent Typhon during or after the Titanomachy. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Hades as cowering down below in the Underworld while Zeus is busy hurling thunder bolts and battling Typhon to take his place as king of the Olympian gods.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone.
After Hades’ birth and the dividing up rulership of the realms, this story is the most well-known regarding this deity.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden. As Kore, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires were known.
This didn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this was love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (also Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes, and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love at first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – Regarding the Narcissus flower, Zeus commands Gaia to create it to distract Persephone when she is out picking flowers. As it is far from any lakes or rivers where her Naiad friends can follow, Persephone is all alone for when Hades comes. Sure enough, when Persephone picks this strange new flower, a chasm opens underneath her, and she falls down into the waiting arms of Hades and the Underworld.
Version 3 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Plouton, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility.
Homeric Hymn – More like a side note, this hymn tells how the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus see a girl being carried away to the Underworld in Hades’ chariot. Eubuleus looses his pigs to the Underworld as they fall into the chasm that opens up for Hades on his descent below.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when he is released, Demeter turns him into an owl.
Altered States of Mind – Most people think of rape as having to be a something violent for it to be valid? I’m sure the in the original Greek tellings of the story, it’s obvious what Hades’ intent is. Never mind later retellings that seem to gloss over and not really make it clear as they want to give you a happy fuzzy feeling that Persephone just accepted her fate and this is how we got the four seasons of the year.
Looking at the older, archaic definition, this is the forcible carrying away of a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. So, looking at how the story of Persephone’s Abduction is originally titled and knowing older definitions of a word, I’d say it’s pretty clear.
Before his marriage to Persephone, Hades does seem to have had a couple of love interests. Not as many as Zeus, that’s for sure, just a couple though.
Hades & Minthe
Hades had a mistress by the name of Minthe, a nymph. In an act of hubris, Minthe boasts about how she is more beautiful than Persephone and that she would manage to win Hades back.
Persephone takes exception to this boast and to prove her power, might and indignation, she turns the nymph into a plant of the same name.
By Ovid’s account, Hades is still pursuing Minthe, which would explain a moment of jealousy on Persephone’s part to make sure her man remains loyal.
Mmm…. Mint. Gotta love that sweet smell.
Hades & Leuce
Leuce was a nymph and the daughter of Oceanus. She was carried off by Hades and ravaged, according to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Though we know what really happened, rape. Alas things were not meant to be and Leuce died. On her death, Hades turns Leuce into a white poplar, a tree that would later be sacred to Hades. Hercules is said to have been wearing a crown of poplar leaves when he returned from the Underworld.
Theseus & Pirithous – Would-Be Suitors
Even though Persephone is married to Hades, that doesn’t stop the heroes Pirithous and Theseus from descending down to the Underworld with the aspirations of Pirithous marrying Persephone.
The two had it in their heads that they would marry daughters of Zeus. They clearly didn’t think the plan through. Of course, Theseus had the bright idea of being the one to try kidnapping Helene, Zeus wasn’t happy with that. Some accounts have the mighty Zeus sending a dream to the two with the idea of going off to have Pirithous marrying Persephone.
Hades is there to welcome the pair sure enough. Soon as they are seated, their chairs magically bind and holdfast the would-be suitors. There they would remain prisoners until the hero Hercules comes to the Underworld to free them. Most versions, it’s just Theseus who is freed.
Just let that be a lesson, don’t mess with another man’s wife or daughters if he thinks you’re unworthy of such a thing.
Molossians – King Aidoneus
There’s a version of the story of Theseus and Pirithous were they journied to the Molossian in Epiros where a King Aidoneus rules. Coincidentally, Aidoneus has a wife by the name of Persephone, a daughter named Kora and a dog named Cerberus. Pirithous conspires to kidnap Kora and when Aidoneus learns of this plot, he seizes both men. Pirithous is killed by the dog Cerberus and Theseus is held prisoner. In this version of the story, Herakles (Hercules) was a guest of Aidoneus and when he learned of what happened; Herakles pleaded for Theseus’ release. In gratitude, Theseus built an alter to Herakles.
So perhaps this shows a bit of taking an actual event and making it larger than life involving the god of the Underworld, Hades.
The Twelve Labors Of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. One of Hercules’ tasks and the final one, was to descend to the Underworld to retrieve the three-headed hound Cerberus.
In a more extended version of the event, Hercules goes to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. This had to purposes, first to absolve Hercules of his guilt for the death of all the centaurs and secondly, it would allow him to learn enter and return from the Underworld.
Hercules found the entrance to the Underworld in Taenarum. With the help of the gods Athena and Hermes, Hercules was able to make the descent down and back. Being sensible, Hercules goes and asks Hades if he can take his dog, Cerberus rather than outright steal it. Hades only consents to Hercules taking his beloved dog on the condition of not harming Cerberus. Specifically, Hercules is not to use any weapons. When leaving the Underworld with Cerberus, Hercules passes through the Acherusia cavern.
In some accounts, it is said that Persephone, not Hades is who allowed the hero to take the hell hound. While Hercules was at it, Persephone also allowed the hero to free Theseus from his confinement. Other accounts will say that Hercules wounds Hades with an arrow, though that sounds like that’s from another story.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Hercules decided it was a good idea to slaughter one of Hades’ cattle in order to give the souls of the dead some fresh blood. Menoetes, Hades’ keeper of cattle challenged the titular hero to a wrestling match. It is only after Hercules breaks the ribs of Menoetes that the hero sets him down at the behest of Persephone.
In the versions told by Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History” and Pseudo-Hyginus’ Fabulae, Hercules frees both Theseus and Pirithous.
In Seneca’s Hercules Furens, Hera complains about Hercules having broken down the doors to the Underworld and dragging the hound, Cerberus up to the living world. Hera ask why doesn’t Hercules lord it over Hades, saying that the law of the shades has been nullified. That a way for ghosts or spirits of the dead to return from the Underworld has been opened up. That the mysteries of Death are available for all to see. Seneca’s Hercules Furens also ignores that Hercules was not to harm Cerberus with any weapons and says that the hero does use his club.
Hercules & Alcestis
This is the second encounter that Hercules and Hades have.
Queen Alcestis was the wife of King Admetos. He didn’t want to die and seems to have gotten some special permission from the Fates.
The Fates told Admetos that he could escape his time to die if someone else would take his place. That person ended up being Alcestis. Wise to the shenanigans, Persephone sent Alcestis back to the living world.
Another version has the mighty Hercules coming to fight Hades so Admetos can be released back to the living world.
Look, when your time comes, it comes.
Hercules & The Siege Of Pylos
This is the third time that Hercules and Hades encountered each other. During the siege of Pylos, Hercules hurt Hades who was there to gather up the souls of the deceased. Some later accounts would place Hades as defending the town of Pylos. Most accounts of this story have Hades wounded by an arrow.
Orpheus & Eurydice
In the story of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld, wherein he hoped to bring back his wife, Eurydice back from the dead. Both Hades and Persephone takes compassion on Orpheus and allow him a chance to try and bring his deceased wife back to the lands of the living.
Seven Against Thebes
During this event, Hades and Persephone ended up sending a deadly plague to the city of Thebes when King Creon refused to bury any of the dead warriors. When two maidens, the Coronides, daughters of Orion sacrificed themselves to appease Hades and Persephone, they were transformed into a pair of comets.
Well, you’re gonna get a plague and diseases if you leave a bunch of corpses out rotting in the field of battle and don’t bury or clean them up.
Hades & Sisyphus
Ah Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down on him.
Before dying, Sisyphus has tied up Thanatos so that men would cease to die. It would take the god Ares to come to the rescue and release Thanatos before turning Sisyphus back over to the god of Death.
Just before getting taken away to the Underworld, Sisyphus had told his wife, Merope to just have his body be thrown out into a public square, where eventually his body made its way to the river Styx. Sisyphus then tricked Hades into allowing him to return to the living world, so he could scold his wife for not giving him a proper burial.
Naturally, the trick worked and once Sisyphus “told off” his wife, he refused to return to the Underworld. It took the god Hermes to forcibly drag Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
Another version of the story has Sisyphus simply pleading to Persephone that he was taken to Tartarus by mistake and the Queen of the Underworld orders his return.
Some people just don’t want to face the music.
Lord Of The Underworld – Hades
Hades was so well equated with the Underworld that the very place came to be associated with his name. Small wonder then, that the Greeks would start calling him Pluto to distinguish between the deity and the place.
The Underworld was known as the Unseen Realm where all the souls of the dead, not just of humans, but all living things. Once there, there for good, there’s no leaving.
As ruler of the dead, Hades forbid anyone from leaving the underworld. A few such as Hercules and Orpheus are among the few living to have claim to entering and returning to tell about it. Others, such as Pirithous and Sisyphus learned the hard way that you don’t dare try to cheat death or there would heavy consequences to pay.
Even so, feared and disliked as he is, Hades was known for being very stern and sometimes seemingly cruel at times. He was still just in all his dealings, even when he had someone like Sisyphus repeatedly trying to cheat death.
The Underworld – Hades
As a physical locale, there are many regions in the underworld. The Greek mythographers weren’t consistent with the geography of the Underworld.
Getting to the Underworld isn’t so easy as it’s located beneath the earth, obviously. In the Odyssey, the entrance is described as being at the edge of the world, across the ocean. Other Greek and Roman poets would describe the Underworld’s entrance being found in deep caverns and deep lakes.
Homer describes the Underworld as being a vague and shadowy place occupied by ghost where nothing is real and any existence, such as it is, was miserable. Well then….
Later descriptions better define what the Underworld looks like with having the Elysian Fields where “good people” go and Tartarus where “evil people” go. Firstly, the god Hermes in his role as a Psychopomp would lead the souls of the dead down to the river Styx. There, assuming the dead had been buried with a coin, the souls would pay the ferryman, Charon to take them across the river Styx to the gates of the Underworld.
An unlucky soul who wasn’t buried with the proper coin, the Greek obol, a small denomination coin much like an American penny, would be condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost
Guarding the gates to the Underworld would be Cerberus ensuring that anyone can enter, but no one is getting back out. Once in, the souls of the dead would stand before the Judges of the Dead to determine where they would be spending the rest of eternity.
A soul deemed to have been good would be taken to the river Lethe where they would drink and forget all the awful things that happened to them in life before being sent to the Elysian Fields. A soul deemed to be bad or unworthy would be seized by the Erinyes and taken to Tartarus where they would be tormented forever.
Acheron – Meaning woe or sorrow, it is one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Asphodel Meadows – Or the Fields of Asphodel, this is the first region of the Underworld. The shades of heroes wander here. Lesser spirits gather around them. The libations of blood offered to them by those in the living world are able to reawaken these spirits for a short period to what it had been like to be living.
Avernus – In Roman myths, the entrance to the Underworld is found at Avernus, a crater near Cumae. This is where the hero, Aeneas journeyed on his descent down to Hades. Incidentally, the name Avernus is sometimes used as the name for the Underworld.
Cocytus – Meaning lamentation, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Elysium – Also called the “Islands of the Blessed,” those souls deemed blameless or heroes would come here to reside in the afterlife.
Erebus – This area is described as being a gloomy and misty place where the dead reside. This is the place where every living person goes when they die. Few are those who have entered that leave. This place is the area most associated with Hades and would be called by the deity’s own name. Here, two pools were to be found. The first being Lethe, the souls of the dead would drink from to erase the memories of their former life. The second pool is Mnemosyne or “memory” that initiates of the Mysteries would drink from.
Hades and Persephone’s court is found here, where three judges of the Underworld, Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus sit in judgment of the dead. In addition, the trivium, a spot sacred to Hecate was found. From the trivium ran three roads. The souls of the dead would be judged here. If a soul was judged to be neither virtuous or evil, they would be sent to the Asphodel Meadows. If a soul was judged to be evil or impious, they would be sent to Tartarus. If a soul was judged to be virtuous or “blameless”, they would be sent to Elysium.
Erytheia – An island found in the Underworld. Hades kept a herd of cattle here who are attended to by Menoetius.
Lethe – Meaning oblivion, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Phlegethon – Meaning fire, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Styx – Meaning hate, an infamous river of the Underworld. One of five rivers, Styx forms the boundary between the living world and the lands of the dead. The newly dead would pay the fare of an obolus or small coin to Charon, the Ferryman to be ferried across to the Underworld. The Greeks would make propitiatory offerings to help those born paupers or without friends and relatives to have a proper burial; thus, preventing their return to the living world. Once to the other side of Styx, the dead would pass by Cerberus, through the gates of the Underworld to be judged and sent on their way to where in the Underworld they would reside. The gods would swear their oaths on this river and is the same river that Achille’s mother dipped him into in order to grant her son invulnerability.
Tartarus – If a soul were deemed evil, they would be sent to Tartarus. Infamous inmates of Tartarus are: the daughters of Danaus who must try to fill a sieve with water, Ixion who is tied to a constantly spinning wheel of fire, Oknos who forever braids a piece of rope while a donkey eats the other end, Sisyphus who must forever roll a rock up a hill, and Tantalos who is unable to ever quench his thirst.
Judaism & Hades
Continuing on the theme of Hades’ name becoming synonymous with that of the Underworld. The Hebrew word, Sheol which means “Unseen” is also the name for the Jewish Underworld. And Hades’ name means “Unseen” as well. It could be easy to see a linguistic translation could cause confusion and could cause people to start calling the Underworld by the name of Hades and giving the deity the name Pluto to keep it straight.
Christianity & Hades
It wasn’t just the Greeks, later Christians would also refer to Hades when wishing someone to go to Hell, they might say “See you in Hades” as an alternative.
The name Hades appears ten times in the Bible, particularly the New Testament; specifically, the newer King James Version and the original Greek texts, where the name Hades is frequently interchangeable with the Christian idea of Hell or for the body’s decay and destruction in death. At times, certain verses seem to indicate the god Hades, not just the place. Later translation will replace the name Hades with that of Hell.
Evil Vs. Well… Neutral
Because Hades is the ruler of the Underworld and God of the Dead, there’s a strong tendency to equate him as being evil. The Underworld, that’s where Hades rules and people down below to Hell where Satan, the devil dwells. Hades must be evil!
Not so, Hades is more altruistic in that he prefers to keep balance. Sure, he comes off as stern and dour and when dealing those like Sisyphus, you have to lay down the law.
There’s a lot of movies and T.V. shows that tend towards showing death and going to the Underworld as some sort of negative thing. When really, it’s just another place, another state of being and plane of existence. Hades was all about maintaining balance.
The television show: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys seems to be the only series I know of that portrays Hades in a positive light. The main episode in question being Hercules helping his Uncle Hades properly win and earn Persephone’s love, not just flat out abducting her. A retelling of Hades’ abduction of Persephone to the Underworld.
Thanatos – Death Personified
Just a quick note to throw in, yes Hades is the God of the Underworld and the Dead, he is not Death personified, that distinction belongs to Thanatos.
Sibylline Oracles – This was a curious mixture of Greco-Roman beliefs and Judeo-Christian beliefs. Here, Hades is noted as the name for the realm of the dead. If one played fast and loose with the etymology of the name Hades, they would derive the name of Adam, the first man due to his being the first to die and enter the afterlife.
Asclepius & Hades
As mentioned before, Hades being the God of the Underworld doesn’t allow the souls of the living to return to the living world lightly. So, it should come as no surprise when, Asclepius, a famous healer, finds himself in trouble with Hades.
Asclepius’ healing abilities were so great, that he could bring the dead back to life. This angered Hades, who, one of his few trips to the upper world, brought his grievances to Zeus. Hades accused Asclepius for the decreasing number of dead who entered his realm.
Siding with his brother, Zeus kills Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
Aesop Fable #133
As a bit of a side story, this fable has a reference to Asclepius’ story. In it, a physician who knows nothing about medicine, informs a patient that they will die and to get his affairs in order.
Even though this patient had other people telling him this bought of illness would go away.
A short bit later, the physician runs into the patient again and asks them how everyone down in Hades are doing. The patient responds that everyone is doing well, however Persephone and Hades are angry, ready to denounce all physicians with the physician at the top of the list as people were no longer getting sick and dying. The patient goes on to say that he stepped forward, grasping their scepters and sword that his was nonsense as the physician was no doctor of at all.
Key Of Hades
This symbol is often used in art to represent Hades’ power and control over the Underworld. The key serves as a reminder that the Gates to the Underworld are always locked. That while souls are free to enter, they are not allowed to leave. Even if the Gates are opened, that Cerberus is right there, guarding the exit to prevent any escapees.
A bident is a two-pronged weapon that Hades is often shown with. That claim though, for antiquity remains uncertain even though a bident does appear in various Greek art and literature and there are a few examples of bronze weapons from Greek culture.
It has also been pointed out that Poseidon has a trident, a three-pronged weapon, Hades has a bident, a two-pronged weapon and that Zeus has his thunderbolt, that is a one-pronged weapon. Just in case someone thought there should be some sort of connection.
With this bident, Hades could shatter anything in his way, much like Poseidon does with his trident.
Helm Of Darkness
Better known as the Cap of Invisibility, the Cap of Hades and Helm of Hades, it is either a cap or helmet that can turn whoever wears it, invisible. The Greek name for the Cap of Invisibility is: Ἅϊδος κυνέην, which translates into “dog-skin of Hades.” The 1st/2nd century text: Bibliotheca mentions Hades having this helmet. A Rabelais refers to this helmet as the Helmet of Pluto and Eramus calls it the Helmet of Orcus. Both names clearly connect this cap or helmet as belonging to the god of the Underworld.
The Helm of Darkness is said to work by creating a cloud of mist, allowing the wearer to become invisible to any supernatural being. The Elder or Uranian cyclops created the Helm of Darkness for Hades to use in the war during the Titanomachy. A gift and thanks for freeing the cyclops from Tartarus.
Hades isn’t the only one to wear the helmet. The goddess Athena wore the helmet during the Trojan War when helping Diomedes fight her brother, Ares. Diomedes succeeds at wounding Ares with a spear.
Then you have Hermes who wore the Helmet when he battled the giant Hippolytus. Lastly is the hero Perseus who received the Helmet from Athena, along with a set of winged sandals when he was on his way to go slay the gorgon, Medusa. Another variation to the story has Perseus getting the Helmet and sandals from the Stygian nymphs. After slaying Medusa, Perseus used the helmet to escape the wrath of her sisters, Euryale and Sthenno.
Plouton – God of Wealth & Riches!
When Hades is known as Plouton, he becomes connected with that of wealth and riches. Seeing as it is underground where gold, silver, precious gems, etc. are all going to be found, that makes sense. It also makes some sense too when partnering Hades up in his role as Plouton with Persephone to spread and share the bounty of the earth. Not just in mineral wealth, but the fertility and growth of the land as well.
Eleusinian Deity – Ploutos is originally a god of wealth as it concerns agriculture and later just wealth and riches overall. Of which, Ploutos is the Demeter’s son by way of Iasion. Which when you know the genealogy and who Ploutos mother is and who Persephone’s mother is, I don’t think the ancient Greeks were thinking through this pairing of deities very well.
Which is what they did when referring Hades by the name of Plouton to try and connect him to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Of course, that could be why Hades is said not to have any children directly and why the mother of Persephone’s children are fathered by someone else. Even then….
It’s just the Greeks playing theological games with throwing everything in a blender and trying to have more minor deities absorbed into the worship of a more influential deity to become an epitaph of said deity.
This connection also comes about too, as the Greeks didn’t like to refer to Hades by name. A euphemistic name would be used instead; Plouton. This alternate name for Hades started seeing use in 5th century B.C.E. The name Plouton would be adopted by the Romans and Latinized to become Pluto.
Aita – Etruscan
A cognate for Hades in the little-known Etruscan beliefs and mythology.
Pluto – Roman
Pluto the Latinization of Plouton. Other Roman names used for Pluto are: Aidoneus, Dis, Dis Pater (“the Rich Father”), Dives and Orcus.
In the Roman retellings of the story, Pluto (Hades) is out riding in the mortal realms, inspecting the land to make sure that after the fall of the titans, the borders to his realm in Tartarus are still secure. When Venus and her son Cupid see the lord of the Underworld out riding, the opportunity is too much for them and Venus instructs her son to hit Pluto with an arrow so that when he sees Proserpine, he is stricken with such love and lust that he carries her off to his shadowy realm of Tartarus. The rest of the story is much like the Greek versions where Ceres sets off in search of her missing daughter.
Alternate Spellings: Κηφεύς Kepheús (Greek)
Pronunciation: sē-ˌfyüs or sē-fē-əs
In Greek mythology, Cepheus is the name of two rulers for Aethiopia; a grandfather and grandson. Regarding the more famous story for Perseus; his freeing Andromeda and constellation, it is the grandson, King Cepheus, the son of Agenor who is the more well known.
The constellation representing Cepheus is often portrayed as a monarch sitting on his throne with his arms held up and his feet pointing towards the north pole. In the night sky, Cepheus is found to the west of the Cassiopeia constellation where it appears to be circling the pole star every night.
Story Of Perseus
In Greek story of Perseus, Cepheus was the king of Acrisios or Aethiopia, the husband of Queen Cassiopeia and the father to Andromeda. For the Greeks, Cepheus is known as the father of the Royal Family.
The story begins when Cassiopea started bragging about how Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids. This kind of attitude of extreme arrogance and pride, especially when a person claims being better than the gods, creates what’s known as hubris.
Offended by Cassiopeia’s remarks, the Nereids approached Poseidon and complained, asking him to punish this mortal woman. Poseidon agreed and he sent a flood as well as the sea monster Cetus (or Kraken) to destroy the coastline of Aethiopia.
After consulting with the oracle of Ammon (identified by the Greeks with Zeus,) located at an oasis near Siwa in the Libyan desert, Cepheus was told that he would be able to end the destruction of his country by giving up his daughter Andromeda in sacrifice to Cetus. At the urging of his people, Cepheus had Andromeda chained to a rock by the sea to await her fate.
Luck was with Andromeda, for the hero Perseus was flying by on the Pegasus and on seeing her, he flew down to ask her why she was bound to the rocks. Andromeda told her story to the hero Perseus.
After hearing the story, Perseus went to Cepheus, saying he could save Andromeda from the sea monster and that in return, he wanted her hand in marriage. Cepheus told Perseus that he could have what he wanted.
At that, Perseus then, depending on the accounts given, pulled his sword and found a weak spot in the scales of the sea monster Cetus or he used the severed head of Medusa to turn the monster to stone.
In either event, the monster was slain, Perseus saved Andromeda and a grateful Cepheus and Cassiopeia welcomed them to a feast where the two were married.
The story doesn’t completely end there as it seems Andromeda had also been promised to her uncle Phineus to marry. This wouldn’t have been disputed or contested if Phineus had been the one to save Andromeda and slay Cetus himself. So Phineus picked a fight with Perseus about his right to marry Andromeda at the wedding.
After slaying a Gorgon and a Sea Monster, a mere mortal man is no challenge for Perseus who once again pulls out Medusa’s head and turns Phineus to stone. Given variations of the story, sometimes this is when Cepheus and Cassiopeia are also turned to stone when they accidentally look at the gorgon’s severed head. With Phineus now dead, Andromeda accompanies Perseus back to his home Tiryns in Argos where they eventually founded the Perseid dynasty.
Some accounts give that Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons and two daughters. Others place this count a little differently saying its seven children all together, six sons and one daughter. Most accounts agree that the eldest son, Perses founds his own kingdom and becomes the ancestor to the kings of Persia. A variation to this account is that Perses was adopted by his grandfather Cepheus and named heir to the throne.
Eventually, years later, as the major figures of the storied died and passed away, the goddess Athena placed Cepheus and the others up into the heavens as constellations to immortalize and commemorate this story.
In another account, because Cepheus was descended from one of Zeus’ lovers, the nymph Io, that earned him a place in the night sky.
Further, it is the god Poseidon who places both Cepheus and Cassiopeia up into heavens to become constellation.
Hyginus’ Account – By his account, Cepheus’ brother is Agenor who confronts Perseus as he was the one to whom Andromeda had been promised in marriage. So, this is who Perseus ends up killing instead of Phineus.
Aethiopia or Ethiopia?
The accounts can vary and much of this owes to some lack of clarity among the ancient Greek Scholars and Historians. Homer is the first to have used the term Aethiopia in his Iliad and Odyssey. Greek historian Herodotus uses the name Aethiopia to describe all of the inhabited lands south of Egypt. The name also features in Greek mythology, where it is sometimes associated with a kingdom said to be seated at Joppa, (what would be modern day Tel-Aviv) or it is placed elsewhere in Asia Minor such as Lybia, Lydia, the Zagros Mountains and even India.
Modern day Ethopia is located on the horn of Africa and has some tentative ties to the legend of Andromeda. The Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived around 300 BCE called Egypt’s Kushite dynasty the “Aethiopian dynasty.” And with the translation of the Hebrew Bible or Torah into Greek around 200 BCE, the Hebrew usage of “Kush” and Kushite” became the Greek “Aethiopia” and “Aethiopians.” This again changes later to the modern English use of “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopians” with the arrival of the King James Bible.
Given the way that Countries, Empires, Kingdoms and Nations rise and fall, expand and shrink, it’s very well possible that both Aethiopia and Ethiopia are one and the same and that modern-day Tel-Aviv once known as Joppa (Jaffa) may have once been part of Ethiopia. Some sources cite Joppa as having been a city of Phoenicia. There is a lot of history that has been lost to the sands of time that can only be guessed at and speculated upon.
Descendant Of Poseidon
Sometimes the genealogies of Greek characters can get a bit confusing depending on when and who is giving the story.
Regarding the King Cepheus from the story of Perseus and Andromeda, he is sometimes said to be the son of Belus, a king of Egypt and son of the god Poseidon. Or, Cepheus would be listed as the son of Phoenix.
Where Belus’ is given as the father, Cepheus then had Anchinoe as his mother and that Danaus, Aegyptus and Phineus are his brothers.
Iasid Cepheus – This is another name Cepheus is known as, referencing his Argive ancestry and connection to King Iasus of Argus, the father of Io.
The constellation known as Cepheus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. The constellation of Cepheus is one of the oldest ones identified by the ancient Greeks in the night sky. Also of note is that the stars that comprise the Cepheus constellation aren’t very bright.
The Cepheus constellation is found on the northern hemisphere where it can most likely be seen during autumn evenings, along with several other constellations named after characters in the myth of Perseus. Because of its northern location, Cepheus is only visible north of the 40° south latitude line and for observers farther south it lies below the horizon. It is 27th largest constellation found in the night sky. Bordering constellations to Cepheus are: Cygnus, Lacerta, Cassiopeia, Camelopardalis, Draco and Ursa Minor.
In Arab astronomy, the image of a shepherd with his dog and sheep are seen in this constellation.
In modern Chinese, the constellation is known as Xiān Wáng Zuò, “The Immortal King.”
The stars of Cepheus are found in two areas of the night sky, the Purple Forbidden Enclosure (Zǐ Wēi Yuán, also called the Central Palace) and the Black Tortoise of the North (Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ). Part of the eastern wall forming the Purple Palace Enclosure passed through Cepheus coming from the Draco constellation to Cassiopeia. Which stars made up this wall is uncertain though.
Tiangou – Also known as Gouxing, the “Hook Star.” The stars Alpha, Eta, Theta, Xi, Iota, and Omicron Cephei form this asterism. This asterism was associated with omens portending earthquakes.
Wudineizuo – This was a group of five stars in the northern part of the Cepheus constellation that bordered with Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis. These five stars represented the seats of the five celestial emperors. These emperors are the deified rulers for the five directions of North, South, East, West and the Center. It’s unknown which of these five stars represented this asterism.
Zaofu – Also spelt as Zhaofu or Tsao Fu. The stars Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Mu, and Nu Cephei formed this constellation. It is named for a famous charioteer of emperor Mu Wang who lived approximately 950 B.C.E.
The constellation of Cepheus, along with eight other constellations of: Andromeda, Auriga, Cassiopeia, Cetus, Lacerta, Pegasus, Perseus and Triangulum.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Perseus.
Stars of Cepheus
Alpha Cephei – Also known as Alderamin from the Arabic phrase “að-ðirā‘ al-yamīn,” meaning: “the right arm.” This is the brightest star within the Cepheus constellation that is some 49 light years away from the earth. This star still will become the pole star in another 5,500 years. The last time that Alpha Cephei had been the pole star was about 18,000 B.C.E.
Beta Cephei – Also known as Alfirk from the Arabic word “al-firqah,” meaning: “the flock.” It is the second brightest star within the Cepheus constellation. It is a triple star that is a class of stars known as Beta Cephei variable stars and is located some 690 light years away from the earth.
Delta Cephei – Also known as Alrediph or Al Radif meaning “the follower.” It is a double star of a yellow and blue star, this star is a prototype star of a class of stars known as Cepheid variable stars or Cepheids. These are pulsating variable stars that can vary in size over a period of hours, days and years. The constellation of Cepheus has many such stars like this. Delta Cephei is some 891 light years away from the earth.
Gamma Cephei – Also known as Alrai, Er Rai and Errai from the Arabic word “ar-rā‘ī” meaning: “the shepherd.” The star Beta Ophiuchi found within the Ophiuchus constellation is sometimes called Alrai, but is more often called “Cebalrai,” the shepherd’s dog. The first confirmed exo-planet was found near Gamma Cephei in 1989 that then got retracted and later reconfirmed in 2002 after more evidence and studies were done. This is a double star like Delta Cephei and is located some 45 light years from the earth. Due to the precession of equinoxes, Gamma Cephei will replace the star Polaris, Alpha Canis Minoris as the north pole star around 3,000 C.E.
Eta Cephei – Also known as Al Kidr, this star is an orange giant that is located some 45 light years away from the earth.
Mu Cephei – Also known as the Garnet Star or Herschel’s Garnet Star, it is a red supergiant that is estimated to be about 2,400 light years away from the earth. This star was discovered by William Herschell in 1781 who described it as being: “a very fine deep garnet colour, such as the periodical star ο Ceti.” It is to date, the largest known star within the Milky Way galaxy.
Xi Cephei – Also known as Kurhah, Alkirdah, Alkurhah or Al Kirduh, it is a triple star of which all three are dwarf stars.
The Cepheus constellation is the location of the quasar 6C B0014+8120 and has an ultra-massive black hole that is reported to be some 40 billion solar masses. This is about 10,000 times more massive than the central black hole found in the Milky Way, making it the most massive black hole known.
Also known as S 155, this nebula is dim and diffuse bright nebula within a larger nebula.
The Fireworks Galaxy
Also known as NGC 6946, this is a spiral galaxy that has had ten supernovae observed within it so far. This galaxy was first discovered by William Herschel in September 1798. It is some 22 million light years away from the earth and lays along the border between Cepheus and Cygnus.
Also known as NGC 738, this is an open star cluster that was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787. This cluster is about 7,000 light years away and the stars found within are less than five million years old, making the Wizard Nebula a young open cluster.
Others Named Cepheus
There are a couple of others named Cepheus in Greek mythology.
- There is a King Cepheus of Tegea. He was the son of Aleus from Arcadia and either Neaera or Cleobule. He had four brothers: Amphidamas, Lycurgus of Arcadia, Auge and Alcidice. This Cepheus would go on to sire twenty sons (at least one named Aeropus) and at least three daughters (Aerope, Antinoe and Sterope). He noted too as the founder of Caphyae. Cepheus and his brother, Amphidamas would later sail with Jason as an Argonaut. During Heracles’ campaign against Hippocoon, Cepheus and his sons allied with the Heracles. Depending on the version of this story told, Cepheus either lost all of his sons or seventeen of his sons and was himself killed during the campaign.
- Cepheus is also the name of one of the people involved in the Calydonian Hunt.
Etymology – Greek – ophis (serpent), ekhein or okhos (holder), “Serpent-Bearer”
Also known as: Ὀφιοῦχος (Greek), Anguitenens, Serpentarius, Hebitsukai-Za (Japanese, “Serpent Bearer”, the Serpent-holder, the Serpent Bearer, the Serpent Wrestler, or the Snake Charmer
The constellation of Ophiuchus is represented as a man holding a snake, seen in the constellation of Serpens. The body of Ophiuchus divides the Serpens constellation in half to Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda.
The ancient Greeks saw the god Apollo in the constellation of Ophiuchus, contending with a large snake that guarded the Delphi Oracle. Many others have seen various legendary healers from Joseph and Aaron from the Bible, Imhotep and Asclepius in this constellation.
Astronomy & Astrology
Much of the foundations of Western knowledge regarding the fields of Astronomy and Astrology owe its roots to Ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Many ancient cultures studied the stars, seeing in them patterns that are called constellations. These ancient astronomers could make predictable, annual turnings of the heavens that they could divide and mark for the passing of the Seasons and time. For the ancients, Astrology served as a precursor to Astronomy and they believed that by studying the heavens, they could foretell future events and even a person’s life path.
These ancient cultures would also meet and exchange ideas frequently and in this fashion, when the Greeks encountered the Persians, there was an exchange of knowledge regarding Astronomy that becomes the constellations and zodiacs so many know today. Eventually, there is no clear distinction between what ancient Mesopotamian Astronomers and Greeks Philosophers knew. Even in current, modern times, the influence of these ancients is still known.
The constellation known as Ophiuchus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 11th in size and located near the celestial equator. Ophiuchus was previously known as Anguitenens and Serpentarius; which in Latin has the same meaning as the modern name.
Constellations bordering with Ophiuchus are: Aquila, Libra, Scorpius, Serpens and Hercules. If you know where in the night sky that Orion is, Ophiuchus on the opposite. The best time to spot Ophiuchus is during the month of July in the Northern Hemisphere.
The ancient Babylonians have a constellation known as the “Sitting Gods” that might have been in the same location of the night sky that Ophiuchus is found.
The Sumerian god, Enki has also been suggested as who the constellation is based on.
In his book, Babylonian Star-lore, Gavin White suggests that Ophiuchus has a connection to the ancient snake god, Nirah, who is sometimes depicted having the upper body of a man and snakes for legs. This idea seems a bit farfetched as there aren’t too many other scholarly works to validate or refute it.
Ophiuchus, combined with Serpens was known as Nu-tsir-da.
Arabic & Islamic Astronomy
According to 10th century C.E., Azophi’s Uranometry, the constellation of Ophiuchus is known by the name of Al-Hawwa’, the Snake-Charmer.
An Arabic title for Ophiuchus is Suille. Herodotus mentions a tribe of snake-charmers known as Psylli in North Africa. This part offered up some confusion keeping this straight. Again, as there’s some conflicting information and research. I found a “le Psylle” that refers to an insect. This may be to a lot of confusion with languages and translations.
To the ancient Chinese astronomers, Alpha Ophiuchi is known as Hou, a senior assistant to the Emperor. The Emperor’s thrown, Dizuo is located directly north in the Hercules constellation where it corresponds with the star Alpha Herculis. What exactly Hou’s role is, is rather unclear. Some have referred to him as an overseer, an usher bringing in guests and possibly an astrologer.
The stars Iota and Kappa Ophiuchi formed Hu, a measuring cup for liquids, this constellation is found further in the Hercules constellation.
For the ancient Chinese, the southern part of Hercules, most of Serpens and Ophiuchus were viewed as a celestial market place, Tianshi. To the left of Tianshi, there is an eastern wall that starts in the constellation of Hercules and heads south through Serpens Cauda and ending in Ophiuchus at Eta Ophiuchi. To the right of Tianshi, a western wall runs southward from Hercules, through Serpens Caput and ends in Ophiuchus with stars Delta, Epsilon and Zeta Ophiuchi. The stars 20 Ophiuchi and Chesi are seen as market stalls along the right wall. The stars Lambda Ophiuchi and Sigma Serpentis made up Liesi, an arcade where jewelers shops could be found.
Comprised of stars Mu, 47, 30 and a much fainter star formed a six-star loop that represents a hall or a tower housing the trading standards office. Finishing out this shape are the stars Omicron and Nu in Serpens Cauda.
Zongzheng, Zongren, and Zong
These three constellations are found to the south of Hou. Zongzheng is noted by the stars Beta and Gamma Ophiuchi and Zongren is noted by the stars 66, 67, 68 and 70 Ophiuchi. These two constellations are seen to represent a governor and his aides who are supervising the younger members of the royal family. Zong is noted by the stars 71 and 72 Ophiuchi and is seen to represent a revered ancestor to the royal family.
The stars Phi, Chi, Psi, and Omega Ophiuchi formed Dongxian found outside the market walls. Dongxian is the western door to the steward’s room, used for investigating on any trade infractions. The eastern door, Xixian is found in Scorpius and Libra.
Marked by Theta Ophiuchi and three other stars, this constellation is a celestial river, located in the Milky Way and thought to control the waterways.
Lying next to Tianjiang, this constellation is composed of eight faint stars found in Ophiuchus and Sagittarius. It is thought that Tianyue lays directly on the ecliptic and represents a keyhole or lock that the Sun must thread itself through every year. It lays directly across the heavens from Tiangun, a gate found on the ecliptic within the Taurus constellation.
In later symbolic literature for Christianity, the imagery of Ophiuchus and the serpent is used in the story of the Garden of Eden. In his Paradise Lost, John Milton uses Ophiuchus as a major simile where he compares Satan to a comet that burns through the length of the constellation.
Again, with the strong imagery of the figure holding a serpent, some astrologists have connected the story of Joseph from the Biblical Book of Genesis and his interpreting dreams for the Pharaoh. Another story connecting Ophiuchus to the bible is that of Aaron and his casting down his rod to become a snake.
Due to the rise of interest in Ophiuchus as a 13th Astrological sign, many have been quick to identify the Greek physician Asclepius in this constellation. In turn, discussion extends to an earlier Egyptian healer, Imhotep that Asclepius is based on.
The 4th century B.C.E. Greek poet, Aratus has the earliest mention of Ophiuchus in his Phaenomena, which in turn is based on earlier works by Eudoxus of Cnidus. While Aratus didn’t know much about astronomy by Greek standards of the day, he was very well known for his poetry and descriptive imagery for the constellations.
The ancient Greeks saw the god Apollo in the constellation of Ophiuchus, contending with a large snake that guarded the Delphi Oracle.
The son of the god Apollo, Asclepius is the figure most often seen and identified in the constellation of Ophiuchus. Elevated to the status of a demi or lesser god, Asclepius was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead.
This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called into the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
Another story of Asclepius bringing people back to life is the resurrection of Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
Asclepius had been raised by Chiron, the immortal centaur and god in his own right. From Chiron, Asclepius learned the art of healing and in one story, Asclepius received the blood of the slain gorgon Medusa from the goddess Athena. The gorgon’s blood reportedly held some mystical qualities. The blood taken from the left side of Medusa’s body was a poison while the blood taken from the right side would be able to resurrect people, bringing them back from the dead.
This caused enough of a complaint from Hades to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be any one entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Ophiuchus is part of the Hercules Family of constellations. The myth I found making this connection, has the famous hero Hercules kill Kaikias, the Blinding One. Kaikias or Caecius is the god of the North East Wind who is shown carrying a large shield that scatters hailstones upon the earth.
Other Greek myths see the figure of Laocoön, a Trojan priest of Poseidon. Laocoön had tried to warn the other Trojans about the Trojan Horse and the fact that the Greeks were hiding within it. He would later be killed by a pair of sea serpents sent by the gods to punish Laocoön.
Another Greek myth links Phorbos with the constellation of Ophiuchus. The son of Triopas and Hiscilla, Phorbas became the hero of the island of Rhodes when he saved the people from a plague of serpents. Sometimes this is interpreted to have been dragons, but snakes is often referred to or meant in the story. An oracle had told the people to call on Phorbas who came and rid the island of snakes.
Renaissance And Early Modern Depictions
Inspired by Aratus’ description of Ophiuchus stepping on the constellation of Scorpio with his feet, others such as Renaissance artist such as Albrecht Dürer and astronomer Johannes Kepler continued this idea.
For the Romans, the legendary healer, Asclepius is Romanized to the Latin spelling of Aesculapius. The Ophiuchus constellation is known by the Latin name of Serpentarius.
The constellation of Ophiuchus, along with 18 other constellations of: Cygnus, Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
These constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
The connection extends from Donald H. Menzel, the director of the Harvard Observatory, who in his A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, takes groups of constellations based on where in the night sky they are located and grouping them by the very same location.
Stars Of Ophiuchus
Alpha Ophiuchi – Also known as Rasalhagues or Ras Alhague, meaning “Head of the Snake Charmer” or “Snake Collector” in Arabic, is the brightest star in the Ophiuchus constellation. It marks the head of Ophiuchus.
Beta Ophiuchi – Also known as Celbalrai. Cheleb and Kelb Alrai, it comes from the Arabic word kalb al-rā‘ī, meaning “the shepherd dog.” Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the right shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Gamma Ophiuchi.
The Arabs saw a Shepherd in the star Alpha Ophiuchi with his dog, the star Beta Ophiuchi guarding sheep in the area.
Delta Ophiuchi – Also known as Yed Prior, the word “yed” comes from the Arabic language meaning “the hand.” Along with the star Epsilon Ophiuchi, these two stars mark the left hand of the Serpent Bearer, holding the head of the snake.
Epsilon Ophiuchi – Also known as Yed Posterior, this star along with Delta Ophiuchi mark the left hand of the Serpent Bearer.
Eta Ophiuchi – Also known as Sabik is the second brightest star in Ophiuchus.
Gamma Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the right shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Beta Ophiuchi.
Iota Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the left shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Kappa Ophiuchi.
Kappa Ophiuchi – Ptolemy in his Almagest, placed the left shoulder of the Serpent Holder with this star along with Iota Ophiuchi.
Barnard’s Star – This is the second or third closest star to our own sun about 6 light-years away. The only other stars that are closer are those found in the Alpha Centauri binary star system and Proxima Centauri. Banard’s Star is located just north of a V-shaped group of stars that form a now obsolete constellation known as Taurus Poniatovii or Poniatowski’s Bull, specifically 66 Ophiuchi.
Taurus Poniatovii – Obsolete Constellation
According to Ptolemy’s The Almagest, the stars 66, 67, 68, 70, and 72 Ophiuchi made a short-lived constellation that formed a bull. The constellation has since then been combined wiwth Ophiuchus to form the right shoulder and tail of the serpent.
First off, what is a Superbubble? It’s an astronomical event that happens when area of space, often hundreds of light years in distance has been created by several stars going supernovae and stellar winds blowing in interstellar gas. It’s basically what’s left over after the star or stars have finished going nova.
2005 saw a group of astronomers using information from the Green Bank Telescope to discover and identify one such Superbubble or Supershell. This particular superbubble is so large it reaches out beyond the furthest edges of the galaxy.
Also, known as Keplar’s Star. On October 9th, 1604, Johannes Kepler observed a supernova near the star Ophiuchi. Johannes would study this nova so extensively that it would eventually be named after him. The book, De stella nova in pede Serpentarii (On the New Star in Ophiuchus’ Foot) contains all of Johannes’ studies and finding on this nova.
Galileo used this nova’s brief appearance when countering Aristotelian dogma and beliefs that the heavens were unchangeable.
Little Ghost Nebula
This is a planetary nebula found in Ophiuchus by William Herschel. It is about 2,000 light years away from the Earth.
Dark Horse Nebula
Also, known as the Great Dark Horse is a nebula found in Ophiuchus. This nebular is so named as its shape looks like the profile of a horse. It lays near the border with the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius. The Dark Horse Nebula is one of the largest and with the right conditions, it can be seen without the aid of binoculars.
This nebula is part of the larger Dark Horse Nebula and is considered to form the hind legs or quarters of the Dark Horse. Like the Dark Horse, the Pipe can be seen without any aid from telescopes or binoculars, but its still helpful to use them.
Yet another nebula found in Ophiuchus. Like the Pipe Nebula, the Snake Nebula is also part of the much larger Dark Horse Nebula. It is about 650 light years from the Earth. While small, the snake is easily found for its distinctive s-shape near the bowl part of the Pipe Nebula.
Twin Jet Nebula
Also, known as Minkowski’s Butterfly or the Butterfly Nebula, it was first discovered by German-American astronomer Rudolph Minkowski in 1947. The nebula is so named as it appears like either a butterfly or a pair of exhaust pipes on a jet.
There are four meteor shows associated with the constellation of Ophiuchus. They are the Ophiuchids, the Northern May Ophiuchids, Southern May Ophiuchids and Theta Ophiuchids.
Ophiuchus In Astrology?
The 13th Sign of the Zodiac!
Not so fast there! It may sound great and exciting, but such is not the case.
The idea of a 13th Sign for the Zodiac quickly caught fire in the imaginations of many aspiring astrologers, New Agers and assorted others.
Even from the expert astrologers, it must be remembered that Ophiuchus is a constellation, not a new Zodiac Sign. You don’t have to worry about going to bed, believing you were a Scorpio or Sagittarius and suddenly, everything has changed and you’re now an Ophiuchus. Nothing of the sort.
Yes, Ophiuchus is one of thirteen constellations that crosses the ecliptic as the earth makes it monthly journey around the sun and appears to move from one Zodiac Sign to the next. There is a huge difference though between a constellation and a Sign within the Zodiac. Traditionally the classical Greek Zodiac is set up into twelve Signs that stretch along the earth’s ecliptic path with each sign having roughly a month’s time. Especially in the Western traditions. The set up for the for the Signs also follow the changes of the seasons so that the March equinox will fall on the day when the celestial boundary is between Aries and Pisces.
Constellations on the other hand, vary in size and are based on the positions of the stars. Due to the precession of the equinoxes over the millennia, a Sign and constellation no longer directly line up and correlate to which Zodiac is in the heavens.
A History Lesson
Ptolemy, in his book Tetrabiblos, 170 C.E., mentions only 12 Signs. Yes Ophiuchus and some of the fixed stars got used by some of the ancient astrologers for the more significant celestial events. The 1st C.E. poet Manilius for example, in his Astronomica, describes Ohiuchus in an astrological poem. Later, Manilus goes on to discuss the astrological influence of Ophiuchus, commenting that when this constellation is rising, a person will have an affinity for snakes and be protected from their poison. Of course, a later 4th century astrologer known as Anonymous of 379 will make the association of Ras Alhague, the brightest star in Ophiuchus, as the star of doctors, healers and physicians.
Alright, so I can see where some people will jump up and down getting excited for: “See! It is the 13th Sign!”
In more modern 20th and 21st century, the IAU (International Astronomy Union) in 1930 came up with the idea of 13 astrological Signs due to “the Sun is in the sign of Ophiuchus” between November 29th and December 17th with where the constellation boundaries lay. This continues with Stephen Schmidt in 1970, when he suggested a 14-Sign Zodiac, which includes Cetus as a Sign. Later, in 1995, the 13-Sign Zodiac is put forward by Walter Berg in his “The 13 Signs of the Zodiac” and Mark Yazaki in Japan. There, the concept of Ophiuchus took off in Japanese pop culture appearing in a number of video games, notably Final Fantasy and the anime and manga series known as Fairy Tail.
People’s imaginations got fired up for a 13th Sign when an astronomy professor Parke Kunkle from the Minneapolis Community and Technical College explained to his local paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about the precession of stars over time and that eventually, old markers for time with the changes of the season altered.
The specific quote is this – “Two thousand years ago the Sun was ‘in’ whatever it was in. Now it’s about a whole constellation off from that.” It’s a quote that went viral and got picked up by various media news sites. And for the lay person who first gets into Astrology or doesn’t know anything at all, there’s the assumption that it’s all based on the constellations and not the Signs.
But It Must Be A Sign!
If you’re insisting it must be a new Zodiac Sign, here we go –
The time for Ophiuchus is from November 29th to December 17th. This takes up a good chunk of the time that’s for Sagittarius that typically runs from November 23rd to December 21st. Perhaps you can see why this is problematic.
As a 13th Sign, Ophiuchus doesn’t have an opposite Sign like all the others do. Adding Ophiuchus makes the use of the Zodiacs more Constellation based or sidereal. The use of sidereal astrology is more typical of the Vedic Astrology. Walter Berg states that the Sun is the Planet associated for this Sign. Many also place a strong emphasis on Ophiuchus’ role and affinity with healing through the use of imagery with Asclepius, Imhotep and to a lesser degree others like Joseph of Biblical fame for his interpretation of dreams and the Babylonian god Enki.
Ophiuchans are described as: seekers of wisdom and knowledge, they’re known for having a flamboyant or brightly colored wardrobe, they get along will with authority and supervisors, a seeker of peace and harmony, dream interpretation, premonitions, medical affinity, likely to have a large family though possibly have left their own home at an early age and have an eye for design and construction. The number 12 is considered an Ophiuchan’s lucky number and people may or may not be a bit envious for their progress and advances in life.
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference about Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. A last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There’s typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer or Hesiod mention him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue their true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to god and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Other gifts that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play. Calliope, as Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophesy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations to how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bringing his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, that he looked back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would than later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld and that of Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay or other supernatural being.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as whey would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death for Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophesies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures of Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their decent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Alternate Spelling: Kybele
Other names: Agdistis Cybele Magna Mater, Berecyntia, Brimo, Dindymene, Magna Mater, Mother of the Gods, Kubaba, Matar Kubelē, Kubileya or Kubeleya “Kubeleyan Mother” (Phrygian, translation: “Mountain Mother”), Lydian Kuvava (Turkish Kibele), Κυβέλη, Kybêlê, Kybele, Κυβήβη Kybebe, Κύβελις Kybelis (Greek), Meter Theon, Great Mother
Other Names and Epithets: Antaea, Mātēr, Mētēr, Mistress Cybele the Mother, Mistress of Animals, Idaea, Isis, Rhea, Demeter, Ops, Potnia Theron (Mistress of the Animals), Mater Deum Magna Idaea, Meter Theon Idaia (“Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida”), Meter Oreie (Mountain Mother), “The Mother of the Gods, the Savior who Hears our Prayers”, “The Mother of the Gods, the Accessible One.” Megalenses ludi, Pessinuntica (Phrygian – “Mother of the Gods.”)
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: ” Mother of the Mountain,” “Cavern-Dweller”
An inscription found on one of Cybele’s Phrygian rock monuments has been translated as mater kubileya, “Mother of the Mountain.” The inscription for matar or “Mother” is found at many other Phrygian sites.
Animal: Bee, Hawks, Lions, essentially all wildlife.
Colors: Brown, Green, Blue
Day of the Week: Saturday
Patron of: Nature, Natural places, Mountains, Caverns, Walls, Fortresses
Plant: Almond, Pine
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, Menstruation, Nature, Sex, War, Mother of Life
Symbols: lions, naiskos, tympanon (hand-drum or tambourine), pine cones
Early Greek depictions of Cybele are small votive representations of her rock-cut statues and images found in Phrygia. Cybele is shown standing alone inside a naiskos, which is basically a rock-hewn relief with walls and roof overhead to represent a temple or doorway. She is crowned with a type of tall cylindrical hat called a polos, a long flowing chiton that covers her shoulders and back. Cybele is sometimes shown with lion attendants to either side of her.
Approximately 5th century B.C.E., the Greek sculptor Agoracritos made the official Hellenized version of Cybele in the Athenian agora. This statue shows Cybele sitting on a throne with a lion at her side and holding a tympanon, a type of hand drum that the Greeks used in her cults and worship. In Greece, Cybele would be very closely identified with the Greek’s mother goddess figure of Rhea.
Anatolian & Phrygian Origins
While Cybele is known as the Great Mother in the Roman pantheon, she was originally a mother goddess from Anatolia. She is likely the precursor of a Neolithic goddess in Çatalhöyük (Konya), where a statue of a pregnant goddess that appears to be giving birth is seated on a lion throne was found within a granary.
For the Phrygians, Cybele is the only known goddess and is also likely the state deity. In addition, Cybele was a goddess of caverns, goddess of the Earth in its primitive form and was worshiped on mountain tops. Cybele’s domain was over all the wild creatures of the earth. Phrygian art dating to the 8th century B.C.E. shows Cybele attended by lions, a bird of prey and a small vase for libations or other offerings.
Greek colonists would later adopt Cybele in Asia Minor before bringing her back to the mainland where her worship would spread during the 6th century B.C.E.
In Çatal Hüyük, Turkey, there is a figurine that was found dating back to 8,000 B.C.E. that depicts a Mother Goddess squatting in the process of giving birth and is flanked to either side by two leopards. This figurine is thought to be Cybele in a very early form.
Cumae – The Sybils of this temple were Cybele’s priestess and oracles.
Ionia – In places such as Magnesia and Maeander, where Cybele is worshiped as Dindymene, she held temples.
Pessinus – Located near Mount Dindymus in Phrygia, a temple was built here dedicated to Cybele Dindymene. Legend holds that the Argonauts built this temple. Here, Cybele was represented by a black meteoric iron stone. This same meteorite may have also associated with another mountain deity of Pessinus as Agdistis.
Rome – A temple for Cybele as Magna Mater stood on the slopes of Palatine Hill it overlooked the Circus Maximus and facing another of Cybele’s temples on Aventine. The first temple here was destroyed by fire in 111 B.C.E. and later rebuilt. In Imperial Rome, the temple burned down again and was rebuilt by Augustus, only to get burned again.
During the ground breaking and preparation for Saint Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill, a shrine known as the Phrgianum and dedicated to Magna Mater was found. A motif of Saint Peter is found standing at the site of Cybele’s temple in Rome.
The Roman port of Ostia also boosted a sanctuary to Magna Mater and Attis, commemorating their arrival to Rome. The worship of Cybele brought on the anger of many Christians within the Roman Empire. Especially when Saint Theodre of Amasea, in recanting his beliefs, did so by burning down a temple of Cybele.
Mount Sipylus – A stone carving found here is believed to be the oldest image of Cybele. The carving itself is attributed to the legendary Greek hunter Broteas as having created it. The 2nd century C.E. geographer Rausanias mentions a Magnesian cult to “The Mother of the Gods” having been present.
Cults Of Cybele
The rites for Cybele were secretive and mysterious like many Earth Mother Goddesses such as Demeter and Isis. Cybele’ cult was directed by eunuch priests known as Corybantes or Galli. They were very faithful in conducting their orgiastic rites that were often wild and emotional with lots of ecstatic cries and frenzied, passionate music of flutes, drums and cymbals. In addition, sacrifices were made to Cybele, symbolizing the death and rebirth of her son and consort Attis. Self-castration is said to have taken place in Cybele’s rites. Other later rites were the taurobolium in which a bull was sacrificed and a priest bathing in its blood.
As a mystery cult, not much is known about Cybele’s initiates and worshipers. Stone reliefs show Cybele alongside both young male and female attendants carrying torches and vessels used for purification. Surviving literature describes a joyous sound of abandonment with loud percussions of tympanons, castanets, cymbals and flutes and a lot of frenzied dancing. It has been suggested that the dancing is likely to have been circle-dancing by women.
Worship Among The Greeks
Cybele’s cult was introduced to Greece by returning soldiers from the Trojan War and is noted for having caused a lot of conflicts. It would later be adopted by the Romans who held festivals in Cybele’s honor. The worship of Cybele among the Greeks held various mixed views. Here, her various different aspects were mixed with other goddesses. Notably the goddesses of Gaia, an Earth-goddess, Rhea, a Minoan goddess and the Harvest-Mother goddess of Demeter. The city-state of Athens invoked Cybele as a protector.
In 6th century B.C.E., Herodotus mentions that when Anacharsis returned to Scythia, that his brother the Scythian king had Anacharsis put to death for joining Cybele’s cult.
Athenian tradition holds that sometime around 500 B.C.E, a city metroon was created in order to placate Cybele after she visited a plague upon the city after one of her priests was killed for trying to introduce her cult. It’s thought that this story would explain why a public building would be dedicated to an imported goddess. The earliest source to this story is referenced in the “Hymn To The Mother Of The Gods,” circa 362 C.E. by the Roman emperor Julian. Given Cybele’s wild and forceful nature, her cults were often privately funded rather than publicly funded among the Greeks.
In Greek rites, Cybele was often seen as a foreign and exotic mystery-goddess who rode in a lion-drawn chariot accompanied with wild music, wine and a rather disorderly following; not unlike Dionysus or Bacchus’ Bacchanalias. As a foreign goddess, Cybele was seen as the great goddess of the Eastern World.
The transgender or eunuch priesthood was uniquely Greek. Many of Cybele’s Greek cults held a rite to a divine Phrygian Shepard-consort of Attis. This joint cult of Cybele and Attis was found throughout Magna Graecia, with evidence of this cult in Gaul, modern day Marseilles and Lokroi in southern Italy during the 6th and 7th centuries B.C.E. Following Alexander the Great’s conquests of the known world, wandering devotees to Cybele became common place in Greek literature and social life.
The Greeks associating Cybele with the Minoan goddess, Rhea has led to a number of different male demigods becoming tied into Cybele’s mythology as attendants or guardians for her infant son Zeus, in the cave of his birth.
Within the Grecian cults, these different male demigods acted as the intermediaries, go-between, even messengers for the goddess and her mortal followers through the use of dreams, trances and ecstatic dances and song.
Some of these demigod messengers are:
Korybantes – Or Kouretes, a group of nine armed dancers who are the offspring of the Muse Thalia and the god Apollo. They used drumming and dancing to drown out the cries of an infant Zeus to prevent him from being discovered.
Corybantes – Simply the same group, only this is the Phrygian name for this group of dancers.
Dactyls – A group of magician-smiths who are sometimes the offspring of Rhea or they worked for the god Hephaestus. They were ancient smiths and healers who sprang into being as Rhea went into labor with her son Zeus.
Telchines – An ancient primordial race with dog heads and flippers for hands. They were best known for their metal working. A group of nine Telchines were employed by Rhea to raise her infant son Zeus.
Worship Among The Romans
To the Romans, Cybele was known as Magna Mātēr or “Great Mother.” In the Roman State, Cybele’s cult and worship was adopted after the Sibylline oracle said it would be an important religious factor during Rome’s Second Punic War with Carthage.
The Romans had some dire omens in the way of a meteor shower, failed crops and an impending famine. It should be noted that a second consultation with the Greek oracle at Delphi confirmed to the Romans that adopting Cybele’s cult and worship would be the right way to go in assuring victory.
Cybele’s arrival into Rome is marked by the arrival of the Pessinos’ black meteor stone from the neighboring Roman ally and Kingdom of Pergamum. Further, Roman legend connects the voyage of the meteor stone with a Claudia Quinta who was accused of being unchaste. When the ship carrying Cybele’s sacred stone became stuck on a sand bar in the Tiber River, Claudia prayed to the goddess for help. Proving her innocence, Claudia was able to single-handedly pull and tow the ship free of the sandbar. Shortly after, Rome’s fortunes changed with a successful harvest and their being able to defeat Hannibal, the then leader of Carthage.
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas. Many of Rome’s leading families claimed Trojan ancestry and this made for Cybele’s integration into the Roman culture and pantheon a sort of reunion with a Mother Goddess’ exiled people. Further Romanization of Cybele sees her identified with the goddess Ops, wife of Saturn and the parents of Jupiter.
Rome’s dominance over the Mediterranean and Europe, saw many of Cybele’s cults get Romanized and spread throughout the Empire. Just what the exact nature of Cybele’s cults and worship among the Romans has meant were greatly discussed and disputed in both Greek and Roman literature and even among modern scholars.
It is generally agreed that the addition of Cybele’s consort Attis and her eunuch priests known as Galli or Gallai and all the wild, ecstatic features of her worship from her Greek and Phrygian cults have been largely Romanized. Something the Romans were very good at when adopting the gods of other cultures into their own. Under the rule of Caesar Augustus, he built a large temple to Cybele on the Palatine Hill. The statue of Cybele found within this temple has the likeness of Augustus’ wife, Livia.
Big Three – Cybele’s worship in Rome became so popular that it would become one of the three, major and important cults within Rome. The other cults are the Cult of Isis and Serapis (Osirus) and Mithraism. All three of these cults would persist and last until Rome’s conversion to Christianity as a state religion. Under Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century C.E., he outlawed all other cults and the church of Magna Mater, Cybele ceased to be and saw heavy persecution and the destruction of her temples.
Castissima Femina – “Purest or Most Virtuous Woman” Claudia Quinta’s connection and involvement with bringing the worship of Cybele to Rome would become more glorified and embellished over the centuries. To the point of forming a small cult. Claudia Quinta would be shown in the dress of a Vestal Virgin in art. Imperial Augustan ideology viewed Claudia as the very ideal of virtuous Roman womanhood.
Criobolium And Taurobolium – While the Greeks may have had no problems with castration for initiation into Cybele’s Cults, the Romans did hold prohibitions to this practice that greatly limited who could be initiated into the cult. Around 160 C.E., it is known that Roman citizen who sought initiation could offer up two forms of animal sacrifice as an alternative to self-castration.
The first, Taurobolium, sacrificed a bull, considered to a potent and expensive offering. The high cost for this sacrifice ensured that only Rome’s highest social class could be initiated. The second, Cribolium, sacrificed a ram, seen as a more inexpensive and thus less potent offering. This sacrifice is more typical of Rome’s poorer social classes.
The Christian apologist, Prudentius gives a description of these sacrifices where a priest stands in a pit under a slatted wooden floor. When the acolytes killed the bull with a sacred spear. The priest will come out from the pit, covered in the bull’s blood, much to the applause of spectators. This is atypical of Roman sacrifices as what is more likely to have happened with a sacrifice is that the blood is carefully collected and offered up to the deity along with the animal’s reproductive organs.
Both the Criobolium and Taurobolium are not linked to any specific religious celebration with Magna Mater, though they clearly have the same symbolism seen with the observance of Hilaria, March’s “Holy Week” that celebrates and honors the death and rebirth of Attis. Later, during Rome’s Imperial era, many of Attis’ initiates come from the deeply religious and wealthy citizens and not necessarily for the worship of Cybele.
Galli – This is the name for Cybele’s priesthood during Imperial Rome. They were eunuch priests who practiced castration as a sign of their devotion to the goddess Cybele. The Galli castrated themselves in service to Cybele as they thought that doing so would give them the powers of prophecy. After castration, they would dress as women, keeping their hair long and adopting female mannerisms and appearances. The Galli also wore a tall cylindrical hat called a polos. It is known the Galli held orgiastic rituals accompanied by loud cries and the loud noise of flutes, drums and cymbals. While there are certainly the male priests who wore women’s clothing, in some regions there were also known to be female priestesses devoted to Cybele.
In Servius’ account, Attis is the founder of this priesthood with the highest ranking Gallus taking the name of Attis. The more junior Galli was known as Battakes. The Galli located at Pessinus were very politically influential among the Roman Senate.
In Rome, the Galli were forbidden citizenship and the rights of inheritance, as they were eunuchs and unable to have children. This was a very stark contrast to many other priests of other Roman gods who did have families and raise children, particularly of the more senior priests.
The Galli are thought to have castrated themselves in keeping with the myth of Attis where he castrates a king for their unwanted sexual advances and gets castrated in turn by the dying king. Cybele’s priest would have found Attis at the base of a pine tree where he dies and they proceed to bury him. In memory of Atti’s passing, the priests are believed to have emasculated themselves and added him to the celebrations and rites for the goddess Cybele. In Hellenistic Greek, a poet refers to Cybele’s priests as Gallai, a feminine form of the name. The Roman poet Catullus refers to Attis in the masculine form of his name until he is castrated. Catullus then refers to Attis in the feminine form of his name thereafter. Different Roman sources refer to the Galli by a third gender of medium genus or tertium sexus when mentioning them.
During the Megalesia festival, the Galli were allowed to leave their temple under Cybele’s law and go out into the streets begging for money. The standard of dress that the Galli wore, marked them as outsiders to the Roman people. Despite their effeminate dress and mannerisms, the Galli were considered sacred and inviolate as they were part of a state Cult. The Roman prohibitions of castration made the Galli a clear image of curiosity and scorn. The Galli were a constant presence within Roman cities even into Rome’s Christian era.
Parentage and Family
Dindymene – In Phrygian mythology, she with King Maeon, is the mother of Cybele. Otherwise, the name of Dindymene is sometimes seen as just an alternative name for Cybele.
Maeon – (Also spelt Meion). A King of Phrygia and Lydia, with his wife Dindymene, fathered Cybele.
In this version of the myths, Cybele was left out, exposed on Mount Cybelus to die. However, leopards came and suckled Cybele, allowing her to survive.
Zeus & Gaia – Pausanias identifies Cybele’s parents as being the Phrygian Sky-Gods and Earth-Goddess whom he names as having been Zeus and Gaia.
Attis – A vegetation bull-god. In the very conflicting and varying stories, Attis is both Cybele’s son and consort.
Midas – As in King Midas of the golden touch. He is sometimes shown to be a consort of Cybele. Though he is definitely regarded as a leader to Cybele’s cult.
Cybele is ultimately the mother and grandmother to a good many deities of the Roman Pantheon.
Cronos – When Cybele is identified with Rhea, she is the mother of Alce, Midas and Nicaea.
Gordius – With him, Cybele is the mother of Midas, when he’s not shown as her consort.
Iasion – With him, Cybele is the mother of Corybas (also spelt Korybas). Iasion is the Samothrakian for Cybele’s consort Attis. Corybas is the first of the Korybantes who will later stand guard over the infant Zeus.
Olympos – With him, Cybele is the mother of Alke-Kybele
Sabazios-Dionysos – Some versions of his birth place him as Cybele’s son instead of Hera/Juno’s child.
A Crisis Of Identity
While Cybele has her origins in Anatolian and Phrygian culture and mythology; her being imported and adopted by other cultures in the Mediterranean has led to a good many other goddess being identified with Cybele or seen as alternative names and epithet.
The most notable is that of the Greek Goddess Rhea, who is also a Mother Goddess. Many of her myths have become intertwined with those of Cybele’s over the years.
Other goddess who have been equated and identified with Cybele are the Roman Goddess Ops, the wife of Saturn, the Egyptian goddess Isis, a minor local goddess or nymph Idaea and the Greek goddess Demeter.
Cybele And The Sibyls
Due to the similarity in the how the names sound, there tends to be a lot of associating the Sibyls as potential female priests and oracles for Cybele. While female oracles, the Sibyls could claim patronage to any deity and not necessarily Cybele. Most seem to follow the Greek god Apollo as he is a god of Prophecy.
Many Sibyles would prophesy at holy sites and they were originally at Delphi and Pessinos, following chthonic deities. And yes, Pessinos is where Cybele originated from when the Romans brought her black stone and statue back home. So there just might be a real connection.
Agdistis – Hermaphrodite – The Birth Of Cybele
Anatolian Goddess – Before the drastic changes to her myth, Agdistis had been a benevolent goddess of healing. Accepted for as they are until later changes are made and forced to this goddess as she and many others are absorbed into the larger myth of Cybele and adopted by other cultures, namely Greece and Rome.
When taken as a separate deity from Cybele, Agdistis is of mixed Anatolian, Greek and Roman mythology. They are a hermaphrodite or androgynous being; having both the male and female sexual organs. This dual nature of Agdistis made them symbolic of the wild and uncontrollable nature. This is an aspect that was seen as so threatening to the other gods that they sought to destroy Agdistis. The one explanation found or given is that Agdistis, being a hermaphrodite, held a huge sexual appetite and the gods were unable to handle it. They felt that this being could and should only be one gender or the other and for the gods, it was easier to remove the male sexual organs.
There a lot of ancient inscriptions that plainly and clearly show Agdistis as being separate from Cybele. However, later, Agdistis’ name would become one of Cybele’s many epithets. A common occurrence for many localized gods and goddess of Phrygia as the gods were imported into Greece and then Rome and many deities of a foreign place were often seen as being the same god, just known by another name.
There are multiple versions of the story for how Agdistis is attacked by the other gods and is castrated, how Attis is born and that Agdistis, now Cybele falls in love with the youth, promising to make him immortal.
How in some versions, Attis is punished for falling in love with is mother, how instead of keeping his vow to Cybele to only follow her, that he falls in love with another and that a jealous, angry Cybele drives Attis and the other guests at a wedding mad. How after, regretting her actions that she pleads to Jupiter/Zeus to restore Attis. One version of the story has both Agdistis and Cybele as separate beings who both fall in love with Attis.
The Greek Version – In this version of the myths, Cybele was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Agdistis. It should be noted, that Attis is very strongly and likely an invention and addition to Cybele’s myth.
As a deity separate from Cybele, Agdistis was a mountain deity found on Mount Dindymus near the city of Pessinus.
The Roman Version – In one version of the myths, Cybele, known as Agdistis is thought to have been a hermaphrodite, having been born of the earth where Jupiter’s sperm fell. The gods castrated Agdistis who then becomes the goddess Cybele. Where the severed pieces of Agdistis’ manhood fell, an almond tree grew. The fruit of this tree impregnated the nymph Nana when she placed an almond on her womb. Or more likely, that she ate an almond. Nana later gave birth to the god Attis. The baby Attis was abandoned by Nana as she was afraid of her father. The baby was discovered and saved by shepherds. Attis would grow up to become Cybele’s lover.
Pausanias’ Version – Pausanias identifies the Phrygian Sky-God and Earth-Goddess as being Zeus and Gaia.
In Pausanias’ version of the story, while sleeping, Zeus had some of his sperm fall on the ground. This of course created a Daimon that was hermaphroditic having the sexual organs for both male and female. This Daimon would be called Agdistis, another name for Cybele. The other gods feared Agdistis and cut off the male organs. This proceeded to create an almond tree. The daughter of the river Saggarios then took the almond fruit and held it to her bosom where it vanished. The daughter would find later that she was pregnant and give birth to Attis.
A slight variation to this story is that while Gaia, as the Great Mother slept on a rock called “Agdo,” the god Zeus raped Gaia and brought about Agdistis birth.
Other variations yet have either Dionysus or Liber who make a potion to put Agdistis to sleep so they can castrate them by tying his genitals to his foot so they’re ripped off when Agdistis stands.
Depending on the version of the story read, there are different accounts to the sequences of events and who is involved, a river nymph or king’s daughter that Attis marries.
It certainly reads as a very conflicting story that will vary by which author relates it. There’s been a good many changes to the story, especially considering how much Attis is a later addition that is largely added-on by the Romans.