Category Archives: Swan
Etymology: “Jealously” or “Passion”
Also known as: Adaon, Aedín, Aideen, Echraidhe (“Horse Rider”), Éadaoin (modern Irish), Edain, Etaoin, Éadaoin
Epithets: Bé Find (“Fair Woman”), Shining-One
Etain is a figure from Irish mythology, her story involves a lot of unwanted transformations from a jealous Fuamnach and different suitors trying to win her. Etain is noted for her extreme beauty among the fae or sidhe. She is best known as the heroine found in the “Tochmarc Étaíne” or “The Wooing of Etain.”
Animal: Butterfly, Dragonfly, Fly, Horse, Swan, Worm
Sphere of Influence: Beauty, Healing, Irish Sovereignty, Music, Rebirth, Transformation, Transmigration of Souls
Parentage and Family
The lineage for Etain can get confusing. When seeing that Etain and the name’s many variant spellings could be the names of other characters, then it could be a matter of which Etain are we talking about?
Ailill – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Ailil, king of Ulaid is Etain’s father.
Etar – In the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (“The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel), Etar is Etain’s father.
Eochaid Feidlech – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Eochaid is the High King, he is Etain’s mortal husband whom she marries after being reincarnated. In the Dindsenchas poem, Rath Eas, Eochaid’s last name is given as Airem.
Midir – In the Wooing of Etain, this is Etain’s husband when she was in Tir na Nog.
Ailill Angubae – By some accounts of Etain’s story, she was really in love with Ailill, Eochaid’s brother. Not to be confused with the Ailill, King of Ulaid, who is her father.
Dian Ceacht – Etain’s daughter when she is married to Oghma.
Étaín Óg – Etain the Younger, she is Etain’s daughter when married to Eochaid Feidlech. Etain Og will go on to marry Cormac, the King of Ulster and have a daughter by the name of Mess Buachalla. Mess Buachalla will go on to marry High King Eterscel and be the mother of Conaire Mor.
Oghma – The Irish god of Writing, in some version, he is Etain’s husband.
Tochmarc Étaíne – The Wooing Of Etain
This is one of the oldest stories found in Irish mythology. There is another story that mentions Etain, the “Togail Bruidne Dá Derga” or “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.”
For now, we’re going to cover: “The Wooing of Etain.” It begins not with Etain, but with Midir and his first wife, Fuamnach. They were happily married and raised among their own children, Oengus or Aengus Óg (a Love god, some sources try to say he’s a sun god too) as a foster son.
For a little further context and background, Oengus is the son of Dagda, Midir’s brother. So really, Midir and Fuamnach are raising their nephew.
Like all children, Oengus grew up and moved out on his own. Midir decided one day that he would go visit his nephew. While visiting, an incident happened, involving some holly and Midir was blinded in one eye.
Even though Oengus heal’s Midir’s eye, Midir still seeks compensation for the injury that occured while visiting as a guest. As Oengus is the God of Love, he gets his Uncle the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland and Fairy, Etain. On seeing her, Midir is instantly in love and he takes her home with him.
It should come as no surprise, that once the two are home, that Midir’s wife, Fuamnach is angry, jealous even. How dare her husband bring home another woman, even if said woman is either a mistress or second bride and this is allowable, it’s the jealously and anger of a far more beautiful woman getting her husband’s attention.
Rather than take out her ire on Midir for this insult, Fuamnach takes it out on Etain. Fuamnach is a powerful sorceress in her own right. An enraged, Fuamnach conspired to cast a series of dark spells on Etain. The first one turns Etain into a pool of water. Another spell turns Etain into a worm or snake. Then finally into either a butterfly or dragonfly.
Changed to this new form, Etain’s wings hold the power that water that dropped from her wings would cure disease and the humming of her wings was soothing to those who heard it. Even in this strange new form,
Depending on the story told, Midir either does or doesn’t recognizes Etain. Regardless of which way the story goes, Midir spends all of his time with his butterfly companion and eschews the company of other women.
This only further enrages Fuamnach who sees that the two lovers are still together. This time, she conjured up a great gale of wind that drove Etain out of Midir’s house and to be lost at sea.
Etain is lost for seven years being buffeted about by the sea winds before at long last finding her way back to shore where she lands on Óengus’ clothing. Óengus does recognize that the butterfly is Etain. As he and Midir are currently feuding with each other, Instead of returning Etain, Óengus makes a small portable butterfly house that he carries around with him.
Eventually Fuamnach learns that Etain is with Óengus and she sends another wind that once more blows Etain out to sea to be lost for another seven years.
That is a long time to be lost at sea, not just once, but twice. Exhausted by her ordeal, Etain finds herself coming to rest on the roof of a house where people were gathered, enjoying a feast.
Drawn by the warmth from within, Etain flew closer to the sounds of merriment. However, in her state of exhaustion, she flew into goblet of wine and was promptly drunk up by Etar, the wife of a wealthy Ulster chieftain.
This is how Etar becomes pregnant with a reborn or reincarnated Etain. The catch being, that as with all reincarnations, a person doesn’t remember who they had been in a previous life. So, a newly reborn Etain grows up as the daughter of a wealthy chieftain.
The Tochmarc Étaine notes that some one thousand and twelve years have passed since Etain’s first birth back in Tir Na Nog, Fairy Land. Just as she had been before, Etain was once again the most lovely and beautiful woman in all of Ireland. The gifts of love, generosity and kindness were all held to be hers.
One day, Etain is out with her handmaidens at a well when they spot a man on horseback coming their way. This man is Eochaid, the king of Ireland. As soon as Eochaid lays eyes on Etain, he is immediately taken with her and asks Etain to be his Queen.
Naturally Etain is flattered and this is an opportunity. Love or not. Power or not. Etain agrees to marry Eochaid and a wedding follows soon after.
Complicating matters, Eochaid’s brother, Ailill Angubae has also in love with Etain and he pins away for her. As he is dying, Ailill confesses his love to Etain. To save him, Etain agrees to sleep with Ailill.
Enter Midir back into the story, who casts a spell on Ailill so that he falls asleep and misses his tryst with Etain. When Etain does go to meet up with Ailill, she does find a man who looks like Ailill, but it’s not, it’s Midir in disguise. Thrice Etain tries to meet up with Ailill and keeps meeting up with the imposter, Midir who finally reveals himself to her on the last time.
Midir tells Etain of her previous life in Fairy as his wife, trying to get Etain to return with him. For Etain, this is a problem, she’s been reborn as a mortal and is married to Eochaid. She won’t leave her current husband unless Eochaid allows her to.
The good thing that comes out of this encounter is that Ailill is no longer pinning away and dying for lack of love over Etain.
A goal and mission in mind, Midir sets out to meet Eochaid. Coming as himself, Midir offers to play a boardgame called fidchell. As other versions of this story say that it’s chess that the two play.
For the first game, Midir makes an offer of fifty horses as the stakes. Eochaid accepts and wins with Midir graciously offered prize. Midir now challenges Eochaid to another game, with higher stakes and wins again.
At some point in the game playing, Eochaid’s foster-father warns him that Midir is a being of great power and to be careful. As Midir is letting Eochaid win, the two keep on playing and with each win, Eochaid has Midir perform another task, ranging from clearing forests, reclaiming land from bogs, building causeways over said bogs.
These series of tasks are said to fit with the idea of the Tuatha De Danann that Midir belongs to as earth deities. Eventually, Midir grows tired of letting Eochaid win and challenges him to a last game of fidchell with the stakes to be named by the winner. This time, Midir wins and he claims an embrace and kiss from Etain.
This is more than what Eochaid is willing to allow. Eochaid agrees to Midir’s claim, that in a month’s time he can come claim Etain. As these stories go, Eochaid didn’t have any intention of letting Etain return to her former husband. Etain was his. On the day that Eochaid was to honor the agreement, he had all of his warriors waiting at his castle. These warriors formed circles around the castle with the intent to keep Midir from reclaiming his wife.
As if he were air or invisible, Midir passed through all the encircling warriors without slaying a one or shedding blood. Soon, Midir comes to the room where Eochaid and Etain await within. Midir proclaims that he is there for that which is his.
Seeing that he can’t renege on the deal after all and must agree, Eochaid says that Midir may have a kiss from Etain’s lips. Eochaid reluctantly allows Etain to go to Midir and the two kiss, transforming into a pair of swans and they fly out, away from the castle and back towards their fairy home of Tir na Nog.
Not wanting to lose Etain, Eochaid and his men set off for the fairy mound of Bri Leith where Midir is said to dwell. The men begin digging and Midir appears before Eochaid, telling him that his wife will be returned to him the next day.
On the morrow, Eochaid returns and there are fifty women, all appearing as Etain. An old hag tells Eochaid to pick out his wife. Eochaid does so and Midir later reveals that Etain had been pregnant when he took her. That the woman he took was in fact their daughter. Eochaid is horrified by the fact that he’s slept with his daughter who is no pregnant. This baby, who is also a girl is laid out in the woods to be exposed. Before death can claim the infant, a herdsman finds the baby and raises her to become the mother of the High King Conaire Mor.
Variations – There are a few different versions to Etain’s story. Some that focus solely on just Etain and what happened to her exclusively. Other versions will explain the whole set up of what led up Midir marrying Etain and thus, better explain why Fuamnach is jealous and maybe not so much jealous, but angry.
Version 1 – This story focuses on Etain being the second wife to Midir with Fuamnach being jealous. Here, Fuamnach enlists the aid of her friends to turn Etain into a pool of water. This causes Midir to becomes worried and he goes searching for his missing wife. To stay one step ahead of him, Fuamnach then turns Etain into a worm and then a fly.
As a fly, Etain flies down Fuamnach’s throat, causing her to become pregnant. Etain is reborn, this time, she’s mortal and doesn’t remember her previous life. Once she grows up, Etain marries the king Eochaid. Only it’s not Eochaid that Etain loves, it’s his brother Ailill, as if that wouldn’t cause more than a few problems.
To make it more complicated, Etain eventually meets Midir again and suddenly remembers who she had been. Just like before Midir wins Etain in a game of chess with Eodaid.
I rather find this version extremely problematic as it’s suggesting Etain wouldn’t know her own father? Assuming Midir still remained married to Fuamnach. Further, if Midir and Fuamnach are fairies and Etain is reborn as their daughter, shouldn’t she be a fairy too? Not mortal? Not to mention the extreme ewww with Midir now wanting someone who’s his daughter.
Just no. No.
It’s this version of the story with Fuamnach becoming Etain’s mother and seeing that Etain’s name means jealously; it makes me think that there may be an allegory or symbolism for the stages of jealousy or passion that Fuamnach is working through with her husband Midir.
Other Versions: There’s numerous versions to Etain’s story, some have her remembering her life in fairy when she meets Midir. Others have her not remembering her life at all and agreeing to leave with Midir if her mortal husband agrees as she thinks this is something that won’t happen.
A lot of these other versions for Etain’s story often simplify their retellings in that they often leave out how Midir and Etain meet, just that they do, the who episode of Alill pinning away for Etain is left off and the final episode where Eochaid tries to get Etain back and unknowingly, is given his daughter.
A couple episodes from the Tochmarc Etaine are repeated in this poem. Eochaid Airenn’s winning Etain back from Midir is in the Rath Esa poem. Midir’s abduction of Etain is referenced in the Rath Cruachan.
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga – The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel
In the main story for the Wooing of Etain, the Tochmarc Etaine, she is described as being very beautiful. However, no description is given anywhere of her. That changes in the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga where Etain encounters King Echu in Bri Leith.
In this text, she is described in a lot of lengthy detail from the comb she’s using to her clothing in lot of green, silver and golds. Her hair is described as being a red gold, skin white as snow, rosy cheeks, unnaturally blue eyes and curved body like the waves of sea foam. The narrator goes to great lengths to try describing what Etain looks like as the fairest of them all, there is a final quote that goes: “Lovely anyone until Étain. Beautiful anyone until Étain.” That such beauty could only mean that Etain was clearly of the sidhe.
Grecian Comparison – Hellen of Troy
The first story of Etain, the Wooing of Etain says that she’s very beautiful, comparable even to Helen of Troy. Where whole cities of Greece go to war with each other her. Etain has a jealous first wife takes out their wrath on her, a former spouse waiting for over a thousand years to reclaim her, and when she’s reborn, her mortal husband trying to keep her from the fairy husband to take her back.
The entire story for Etain reflects an older time when these older stories were likely passed on orally before getting written. So Etain’s story has had plenty of time to be altered and change and the role of the Goddess or Queen who gets to choose is altered and she is no longer in control of her destiny and is just a prize to be won.
An important note brought up about this story, while it doesn’t feature Etain in the first part of it, is to bear in mind that this story is an allegory for Ireland’s history. Etain’s role in the narrative becomes clearer when seeing her as the Goddess of the Land who gets to choose her consort to ensure the prosperity of the land.
A similar motif for this Celtic belief that the Goddess gets to choose her consort is seen in Arthurian Legend for the story of Guinevere, Lancelot and King Arthur with the whole love triangle happening there. Granted that story is a much later addition to Arthurian Legend, it’s an inserted story to narrative to explain the Goddess or Woman’s right to choose whom she loves and marries.
All the figures featured in the story likely represent different clans and geographical localities. Seeing Etain as a Sovereign Goddess of the Land, who she chooses to couple with are whom she deemed as the best ruling clans for the welfare of Ireland.
Lack Of Agency – At a knee-jerk first glance response, I don’t like the story of the Wooing of Etain. Why is Etain punished by Fuamnach for marrying Midir? For that matter, why does Midir get to be the one rewarded for cheating on his wife and marrying a younger woman, loose her and then get her back after waiting patiently for Etain to be reborn?
That here, we have Etain a woman who is just passed around as a prize to be won with barely any say in the matter of what happens to her. If the focus is given soley to Midir as the hero, of course, the entire story makes sense for his journey of loss and recovering his love and wife. Then poor Eochaid who gets to pick his wife and loses her to Midir, who takes back the woman who is rightfully his.
Without the Historical Allegory angle, the entire story feels maddening. No wonder there are later rewritings of the story that want give an image of two lovers who loose and find each other again. To give more agency to Etain’s actions and the series of unfortunate circumstances that befall her.
Etain is forced to a series of unwanted transformations by a jealous lover, ranging from worm to butterfly, to swan and even a pool of water. Including the worm and then changing to a fly, sounds like the larval state of an insect, either as a nymph, meaning the larval form of a dragonfly or caterpillar to a butterfly.
Looking at these stories symbolically, Etain’s transformations from a worm to a fly, only to be swallowed later by a woman and reborn as a child can all be seen as the different stages of life.
Soul or Spirit – In a lot of Celtic folklore, flies or butterflies are often seen as being the souls of the deceased, even if it’s just a metaphor. It makes sense if Etain’s changing to a worm, than a fly or butterfly is merely a symbolic way of describing the spirit’s transformation and more easily explaining the transition from one life to another. Or maybe Fuamnach actually killed Etain, tossing her body into a pool of water?
Celtic Numerology – More of a minor note, the number seven is used for the number of years that Etain is lost at sea a mystical number. In this case, it is a number meaning a spiritual awakening.
That’s undeniable with all the transformations that Etain undergoes once she falls afoul of Fuamnach’s magic, going from a pool of water, to a worm, to a fly or butterfly, swallowed and reborn as a mortal woman.
What’s In A Name
Given the nature of Etain’s story and the meaning of her name: “Jealousy” or “Passion.” I think it sheds an important light to the significance of Etain’s story and the proper framework to look at it in.
Bé Find – Meaning “Fair Woman,” this is a name that Midir gives to Etain in Tochmarc Etaine. It comes from a poem found within the larger saga called: “A Bé Find In Ragha Lium” is likely from a much older, unrelated source and was just stuck in the saga at a later time.
Eadaoin – As Eadaoin, she is noted as being a sidhe and one of the Tuatha De Dannan who is associated with poetry and inspiration. With this spelling, Etain is noted as having a different husband, either Midir or Oghma depending on the source used. This could just merely mean Etain or Eadaoin was a common enough name that there is more than one person in the Irish Mythological Cycles who has this name. As they’re all sidhe, that makes it even more difficult to keep them all straight.
Echraide – Meaning “Horse Rider,” this is a name that has been attached to Etain and is meant to link her with horse deities such as the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Shining-One – An epitaph of “Shining-One” or claiming that’s what Etain’s name means, tend to come from more modern sources that want to connect her to be a Sun Goddess or a fairy. As far as a strong, scholarly bent goes, it doesn’t really work.
Some sources, often the more modern Pagan paths will place Etain as a goddess. Depending on the lineage you follow, if Oghma for example, she is a goddess of poetry and inspiration. Yet another source will list her as a Love or War goddess?
Some of the sources that link Etain to different deific roles seem tentative.
Horse Goddess – One of Etain’s epitaphs is Echraide, meaning “Horse Rider,” which would mean she’s a Horse Goddess, much like the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Sun Goddess – T. F. O’Rahilly is who identified Etain as a Sun Goddess. Several New Age and modern Pagan groups have adopted her as such. When Oengus is identified as a Sun God, this connection makes sense if Etain is seen as his daughter.
Goddess of the Land – This I would readily accept given the nature of Etain’s story as an allegory for Ireland’s history and a Goddess marrying whom she wants that will bring prosperity to the land.
Love Goddess – This really works best for more modern interpretations of Etain’s story; especially when keeping in mind her story as an allegory and for those seeking to reclaim her role as a deity with her own agency who chooses her lovers. Plus, the connection seems to come more strongly with Midir’s fostering of Aengus Óg who is a Love God.
Sovereign Goddess – This is an important aspect of Etain, especially if you want her story to make sense as a deity who choose her consort for the prosperity and welfare of the land.
Triple Goddess – In New Age and Wiccan practices, Etain is often seen as a Triple Goddess
Other Aspects – Furthering this, due to the forced transformations, some will claim Etain as a Goddess of Transformation and Rebirth, a Moon Goddess.
Well yes, most versions of Etain’s story acknowledge her as a fairy, specially one of the Sidhe and certainly of the Tuatha de Danann. An imagery not at all unlike the Tolkien Elves in his Middle Earth series.
The account that has some men coming across an extremely beautiful woman beside a spring see them agreeing that such beauty was only possible of the sidhe.
That seems to be the sentiment of some authors, scholars and modern Pagans.
Wiccan, New Age & Modern Paganism
I think it’s important to note, that myths and stories do change with time. Much of the story that so many know with Etain has been colored through the lens of Christianity and with some regards, a patriarchy, resulting in a story about a woman who appears to have little agency and control over her own fate and destiny.
In the pursuit of adjusting Etain back to her perceived mythological roots and giving her significance and relevance, to better be the actor in her own story, some modern Pagan traditions will claim that Etain’s name means “Shining One” and place her as a Triple Goddess who represents the Sun, Water and Horses.
Understanding Etain’s story will certainly make it easier to interpret her as needed. I think sticking to what’s known and concrete from her legends is the most useful.
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.
Etymology – The Eagle
Pronunciation: There are a few different variations – ˈækwɨlə, əˈkwɪlə and ˈækwɨli
Also known as: Αετός Δίας (Aetos Dios), Aquila Jovis, the Bird of Zeus and the King of Birds
The constellation Aquila, the Eagle has been recognized as early as 1,200 B.C.E. The Euphratean uraanographic stone, dating from the Mesopotamian cultures, depicts this constellation. The constellation lies just a few degrees north of the celestial equator. Many ancient cultures such as the Persians, Hebrews, Arabs, Greeks and Romans all saw an eagle represented in this constellation.
The constellation is seen first with a straight line of three stars that symbolize the wings. The tips of the wings are seen to extend out further to the southeast and northwest. The head of the eagle is seen as stretching out towards the southwest. In older depictions of this constellation, the Eagle is sometimes shown carrying the youth Ganymede.
The constellation known as Aquila is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Aquila is also mentioned by Eudoxus in 4th century B.C.E. and by Aratus in 3rd century B.C.E. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 22nd in size.
Constellations bordering with Aquila are: Aquarius, Capricornus, Delphinus, Hercules, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Sagittarius, Scutum, and Serpens Cauda. The best time to spot Aquila is during the month of August in the Northern Hemisphere.
Antinous – Obsolete Constellation
The astronomer Ptolemy catalogued nineteen stars altogether in Aquila and Antinous. The now obsolete Antinous constellation had been named during Emperor Hadrian’s rule in 132 C.E. Sometimes the cataloging of stars is erroneously attributed to Tycho Brahe who cataloged twelve stars in Aquila and seven stars in Antionus. A Hevelius cataloged some twenty-three stars in Aquila and nineteen in Antionus.
Among the Arabs, Aquila has been known as the Flying Eagle, Crow or Raven. The Persians knew Aquila by the names: the Falcon and the Flying Vulture. The Turks referred to this constellation as the Hunting Eagle.
Chinese Astronomy And Mythology
There is a rather famous and well known love story found in Chinese mythology that is related to the constellation of Aquila, or rather several of its stars. It’s a story that is also similar to the love story connected with the Cygnus constellation.
In Chinese astronomy, the modern day constellation of Aquila lies in the area of the heavens known as Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ, the Black Tortoise of the North and the Three Enclosures or Sān Yuán that divides the night sky of the Chinese Heavens.
The star Zeta Aquilae is located in a part of the night sky seen as Tiān Shì Yuán or the Heavenly Market Enclosure. The rest of Aquila’s stars are found in the area of the night sky ruled by Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ, the Black Tortoise of the North.
In modern day, Aquila is known by the name of Tiān Yīng Zuò, which means: “the heaven eagle constellation.”
Hegu – The Battle Drum
The star Altair and the two stars to either side of it, Beta and Gamma Aquilae form the asterism known as Hegu, a battle drum.
Tianfu – Celestial Drumsticks
The Chinese have an asterism comprising of the stars 62 Aquilae, 58 Aquilae and Eta Aquilae that they call the Celestial Drumsticks.
Youqi – Banner Flags
The stars Delta, Iota, Mu and Sigma form a banner flying to the right of Hegu.
The stars from Sagitta in the north represent a banner to the left side of Hegu.
The Three Generals
Altair, Beta and Gamma Aquilae are also known as the Three Generals with Altair representing the commanding officers with this two subordinates.
Tiabian – Trade Officials
The stars Lambda and 12 Aquilae along with the stars in the constellation Scutum represented a team of Trade Official overseeing the organization of the markets. An area of the heavens that includes the Hercules, Ophiuchus and Serpens constellations. The officials were located just outside of the market walls.
The star Zeta Aquilae formed part of this wall.
Lizhu – The Empress’s Pearls
An L-shaped pattern formed by the stars 1, 69, 70 and 71 Aquilae represent four pearls worn by the Empress. These same stars are also astrologically connected to the Emperor’s harem.
Qi Xi – The Princess And The Cowherd (Herd-Boy And Weaver-Girl)
This is a rather old story that dates as far back as at least the 6th century B.C.E. where it first appears in a collection of stories called the Book of Songs or Shih Ching. The book was possibly compiled and put together by Confucius. However, this book was later destroy a few centuries later by the emperor, Shih Huang Ti who is remembered more for his burning books instead of the construction of the Great Wall of China.
Chih Nu, identified with the star Vega was the daughter of the Sun-God. Chih Nu was known for being very good and skilled with weaving, especially her creation of tapestries. On one particular day, Chih Nu was looking out the palace window and spotted one of her father’s herdmen, Ch’ien Niu. For these two, it was love at first sight and Chih Nu’s father, the King was very happy when he discovered the news.
All started off well, for it was considered a good match, given how Ch’ien Niu was known for being a hard worker and took care of the royal flock with due diligence.
A wedding was planned in which Chih Nu wove her own wedding dress out of starlight. All started off well and the newly married couple were very happy and deeply devoted to each.
It would seem that this deep devotion was also the source of a problem, for it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that Chih Nu’s and Ch’ien Niu’s duties and responsibilities were becoming neglected. Chih Nu’s loom stood forgotten and gathering dust in a corner while the royal cattle that Ch’ien Niu was to tend, began wandering out, straying far across the heavenly plains.
Chih Nu’s father, the Sun-God and King gave the two lovers repeated warnings and still they failed to follow through with their respective obligations and responsibilities. Things got bad enough that the Sun-God finally took measures, the first of which was to banish Ch’ien Niu to the other side of the Heavens to tend the royal cattle there.
Once Ch’ien Niu had crossed the only ford, T’ien-tsin, the Sun-King then ordered that both borders of the ford be closed off so that neither lover could cross. Chih Nu begged her father, but he would not relent on his royal decree.
Eventually, Ch’ien Niu had pleaded her case to the magpies who took pity on her. They decided that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh monty, that they would help the parted lovers. On this day, all the magpies across China would fly up to the Heavens and create a bridge with their wings. This way the two lovers can cross and be together. On this day, Chih Nu cries, at first it is tears of joy that come down as soft, gentle rain. As the day progresses and starts to end, Chih Nu’s tears become a down pour of rain as she knows the two lovers must part ways for another year.
Their task done, the magpies fly away again back to their fields. The next day, when people see the magpies, they take heart knowing that the magpies have done their duty by the way their feathers look trampled. If the magpies’ feathers aren’t trampled, then the people say that bad weather has prevented from flying up to the heavens to form their bridge. Children are also believed to throw stones at any magpies found on the seventh day of the seventh month as these birds are seen as neglecting their duty to go with the others to form the bridge for the two lovers.
Qi Xi Variations
This story is told in China, Korea and Japan, so there are a few different names and variations to the story of Qi Xi. In one version, the star Altair is identified as Niu Lang and his two children are identified as Beta and Gama Aquilae who become separated forever from their wife and mother Zhi Nu, who is identified with the star Vega, in the Cygnus constellation. This separation is represented by the river, the Milky Way.
Another version places the Herd-Boy as an orphan who observes Weaver-Girl among some seven Weavers who descend from the heavens to bathe in a nearby stream. By snatching Weaver-Girl’s robe, Herd-Boy compels her to marry him and ends up sharing her immortality.
Much like the previous version, the two slack off in their duties and it is Weaver-Girl’s grandmother, a Queen of the Heavens who separates the two. The rest of the heaven’s take pity on the young lovers and they are allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month with magpies forming a bridge for them to cross.
In Greek Mythology, there are a few different myths regarding the Aquila constellation. Generally, Aquila is seen as a large golden eagle who serves as Zeus’ messenger and companion animal.
Periphas was a priest of the god Apollo, he lived in Attic at the time and was an autocthon, one of the Earth-Sprung Rock. He was considered so virtuous and beloved by the people that they made him a king and began to honor him like a god.
This angered the god Zeus who was ready to strike down this insolent mortal with one of his thunderbolts. The god Apollo intervened and requested that Zeus instead transform Periphas into an eagle. Zeus went into Periphas’ house and transformed him while Periphas was with his wife. As she didn’t want to be separated from her husband, Zeus also transformed her into a bird, a vulture, represented by the constellation of Lyra, the heavenly vulture.
As Periphas had shown piety and honors to the god Apollo while he had been mortal, Zeus made him the king of birds and tasked him with guarding the sacred scepter and thunderbolts. For Periphas’ wife, Zeus made her a sign and image of good luck regarding all the matters of humankind.
During the ten-year war that Zeus and the other gods held against the Titans, Zeus had an eagle who carried the thunderbolts that he used to hurl at the Titans. In gratitude for the eagle’s service and loyalty, it was given a place up in the heavens as the constellation Aquila.
In other accounts, Zeus adopted the eagle as his bird when it first appeared to him before the Titan War as a sign of good omen while making sacrifices.
The constellation of Aquila is also tied to the story of Ganymede, Zeus’ cup-bearer.
Ganymede was the son of King Tros of Dardania and the basis for the kingdom of Troy in Greek mythology. An exceptionally beautiful youth, Ganymede had caught the attention of Zeus when he was out watching over his father’s flock of sheep. Now, depending on the versions of the story being told, Zeus, either in the guise of an eagle or sending the eagle Aquila, came and carried him off to Mount Olympus. As compensation to King Tros, Zeus gave him some horses.
Once there, Ganymede faced the wrath of Hera, the wife of Zeus, who was angry and very likely jealous that her husband had taken such a fancy for a young boy. In addition to this, she was also angry that Zeus intended for Ganymede to replace Hebe, Hera’s daughter as the cup-bearer after an incident where Hebe had accidentally spilled some nectar of the gods. And it couldn’t have set well with Hera that Zeus immortalized Ganymede in the constellation of Aquarius in addition to immortality and eternal youth.
Another version of this myth says that it was Eos, the goddess of the Dawn who carries off Ganymede to Mount Olympus and then Zeus took him from her to be the cup-bearer.
Regardless of the versions of the story told, Ganymede does become the cup-bearer to the gods and basically serves them their wine. Further variations of this story tell how Ganymede would ride Zeus’ eagle Aquila, accompanying this god on his travels. Both the Aquila constellation near Aquarius and the constellation of Crater, said to be Ganymede’s cup are near Aquarius to complete this story.
Ganymede also becomes deified as he was given immorality and eternal youth by Zeus and ends up being the one responsible for the annual Nile River flooding and the life-giving waters of rain. Some scholars have pointed out that like the story of Capricorn, the Greeks are borrowing from other older stories and cultures as well as coming up with their own stories to explain the images and what the constellations mean.
In Roman times, the name Ganymede was sometimes used for handsome slaves who served as cupbearers. Furthering this, many have pointed out that the story of Ganymede is a clear indication and precedence for homosexuality in Greek culture. Others, like in Plato’s writings of dialogues between him and Socrates say that it wasn’t homosexuality; instead, they point out the meaning of the name Ganymede for “taking pleasure of the mind.” That Zeus loved Ganymede non-sexually for his mind. Still, other sources point out that this is where the Latin word for catamite originates. Additionally, the Roman poet Ovid says that Zeus who turned into an eagle to go retrieve the youth Ganymede.
Aquila Guarding The Arrow of Eros
Another minor story of Aquila that is more attached to the constellation of Sagitta. In this one, Aquila is seen guarding the arrow of Eros that has hit the god Zeus and caused him to become love-struck.
Zeus And Nemesis
During one of Zeus’ many exploits with chasing after and raping other women, he is to have somehow enlisted the aid of the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
In this story, Aquila represents Aphrodite as she’s disguised herself as an eagle, pretending to chase after Zeus who is in the guise of a Swan. All this so he can get the goddess Nemesis to offer him shelter. It is only afterword, when Nemesis has gone to sleep that she learns the swan she thought she had rescued is really the god Zeus in disguise and he rapes her.
To commemorate this conquest, Zeus places the image of the Eagle (Aquila) and the Swan (Cygnus) up into the heavens. Really?
In Hindu mythology, the constellation of Aquila is seen as being Garuda, a half-eagle, half-human deity. Garuda is sometimes depicted as being the mount for the Hindu god Vishnu and to have been large enough to block out the sun. He is the sworn enemy of the Naga serpent race. He is a symbol of violent force, speed, and martial prowess in battle.
Alternatively, the line of three stars that also includes Altair is seen as being the footprints of the god Vishnu.
The Greek constellation of Aquila is very likely based on the Babylonian constellation of MUL.A.MUSHEN, the Eagle. The Babylonian’s constellation is also located in the same area of the night sky as the Greek’s constellation. The author, Gavin White in his book Babylonian Star-Lore, says that the Eagle carried the constellation called the Dead Man or LU.USH in its talons. It’s a story that carries a lot of connections for later Greek and Roman stories of Antinous and Ganymede.
There is a Sumerian story of the hero Etana, who descended to the heavens with the help god Shamash’s eagle while looking for a plant of birth to help ease his wife’s labor pains for the birth of their son, Balih. This plant could only be found in the higher reaches of heaven where Anu lived.
While riding on the back of the eagle, Etana noticed how the earth began to look smaller and smaller the higher they flew. This caused him to become nervous or scared and loose his grip on the eagle’s back.
One version of this story has Etana living for 1,560 years and having only two children. Another version of the story has Etana falling to the earth for daring to try and enter the realm of the god Anu. There is some thought too, that the plant in question, may refer to Mountain Arnica, which is poisonous, but when taken in the right doses, can ease labor pains during birth.
This story seems to have been the inspiration behind the Greek story of Ganymede.
There are several different myths and stories regarding Aquila among the Polynesians.
Futuna – Aquila is known as Kau-amonga, which means the “Suspended Burden.” The name is in reference to the Futunan’s name for Orion’s belt and sword, Amonga.
Hawaii – Among the Hawaiins, the star Altair is called Humu, as in the humu humu fish. The whole of the Aquila constellation is called Humu-ma, the “Humu cluster.” The Humu-ma constellation is believed to influence astrologers.
Marquesas Islands – Here, Aquila is known by the name of Pao-toa, meaning the “Fatigued Warrior.”
Māori – The Māori of New Zealand called Altair by the name of Poutu-te-rangi, meaning “Pillar of the Sky.” Due to this star’s position in the heavens, it has been used in different Māori calendars. In one, Poutu-te-rangi is the ruling star for the months of February and March. In another calendar, it is the ruling star for March and April. Poutu-te-rangi is also the star that rules over the annual sweet potato harvests.
Pukapuka – Aquila is known by the name of Tolu, meaning “three” and comprises of the stars Alpha, Beta and Gamma Aquilae. The star Altair is known by the name of Turu and was used for navigation.
Tuamotus – Aquila is known by the name of Tukituki, meaning to “Pound with a hammer.” The star Beta Aquilae is called Nga Tangata, meaning “The Men.”
Many of the Roman myths regarding the Aquila constellation are very similar to the Greek stories from which they took, borrowed or stole. There are a few additional myths and stories that can be found.
To start with, the eagle represented in the constellation is thought to be Aetos Dios, the golden eagle who serves Jupiter.
Interestingly, the constellation Aquila is known as Vultur volans, the flying vulture by the Romans. This name shouldn’t be confused with the name Vultur cadens, the Roman’s name for the constellation Lyra.
Aetos Dios & Prometheus
Keeping in mind that the Romans called Aquila a vulture, it then ties in with the story of Prometheus and his being chained and bound to the top of a mountain where a large vulture would come and eat his liver every day as punishment.
In the Greek and Roman mythology, Prometheus is the titan who took pity on humankind and gave them the gift of fire after all the other gifts had been given out. Enraged by this act, the god Zeus had Prometheus chained and bound to a mountain. Every day Prometheus would be attacked by a giant vulture or eagle who ate his liver every day as it would grow back by the next. Being immortal, Prometheus suffered a lot as his wounds would heal every day. Eventually after many years, the hero Hercules comes along and frees the mighty titan after slaying the vulture. After it’s death, the god Zeus placed the vulture up into the heavens to become the constellation Aquilla.
Aetos Dios & Psyche
A Roman novel dating to the second century C.E., The Golden Ass and written by Apuleius, there is an incidence in which the goddess Venus sends Psyche to go get a pitcher of water from the river Styx.
Given the deadly nature of the river Styx, the bird Aetos Dios, of his own freewill and his past services to Cupid, comes to aid Psyche in getting water so she wouldn’t come to harm. What seems a little odd in the story given here is that Aetos Dios lies to Psyche, claiming that Venus had sent him to come help her and mentions nothing at all about acting on his own violation, either way, Psyche has the water and returns to Venus with it.
The constellation of Aquila, along with 18 other constellations of: Ara, Centaurus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hercules, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Serpens, Sextans, Triangulum Australe, and Vulpecula.
All of 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.
Aquila, along with the other avian constellations of Cygnus and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
Aquila’s alpha star, Altair forms part of an asterism known as the Summer Triangle. It is the southern point of the Summer Triangle. The other stars, Deneb, found in the constellation of Cygnus, is the triangle’s northeastern point and Vega, found in the constellation of Lyra to the northwest.
Stars of Aquila
Alpha Aquilae – Also known as Altair, is the brightest star within the Aquila constellation and the 12th brightest star overall in the night sky. Altair’s name comes from the Arabic phrase: “al-nasr al-tair,” meaning “the flying eagle” or “vulture.” Ptolemy named this star Aetus, the Latin word for “eagle.” Both the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians referred to Altair as “the eagle star.”
Beta Aquilae – Also known as Alshain, it is a yellow star. Alshain’s name comes from the Perso-Arabic word: aš-šāhīn, which means “the falcon.”
Gamma Aquilae – Also known as Tarazed, it is an orange giant. Tarazed’s name comes from the Arabic phrase: “shahin-i tarazu,” meaning “the balance” or “the beam of the scale.”
Epsilon Aquilae – This star, along with Zeta Aquilae have an Arabic name of Deneb al Okab, meaning: “the eagle’s tail.” To differentiate Epsilon Aquilae from Zeta Aquilae, Epsilon Aquilae is frequently referred to as Deneb el Okab Borealis as it is north of Zeta Aquilae.
Zeta Aquilae – This star, along with Epsilon Aquilae have an Arabic name of Deneb al Okab, meaning: “the eagle’s tail.” To differentiate Zeta Aquilae from Epsilon Aquilae, Zeta Aquilae is frequently referred to as Deneb el Okab Australis as it is south of Epsilon Aquilae.
Eta Aquilae – Also known as Bezek, is a yellow-white supergiant star. Bezek’s name comes from the Hebrew word bazak which means: “lightning.”
Theta Aquilae – Also known as Tseen Foo, is a binary star. Tseen Foo’s name comes from the Mandarin word tianfu, which means: “the heavenly rafter” and “drumsticks.”
Iota Aquilae – Also known as Al Thalimain, it is a blue-white star. Al Thalimain’s name, along with Lambda Aquila, in Arabic means: “the two ostriches.”
Lambda Aquilae – Also known as Al Thalimain, it is a blue-white star. Al Thalimain’s name, along with Iota Aquila, in Arabic means: “the two ostriches.”
Rho Aquilae – Also known as Tso Ke, is a white dwarf. Tso Re’s name comes from Mandarin and means: “the left flag.” As of 1992, this star is no longer part of the Aquila constellation and has since moved into the Delphinus constellation.
Glowing Eye Nebula
Also known as NGC 6751, this nebula is one of many found within the borders and star field that makes up Aquila.
Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall
Aquila is home to one of the largest single mass concentration of galaxies in the Universe found so far. It is referred to as the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall. It was first discovered in November of 2013 and has a size of about 10 billion light years.
Two major novae have been observed within Aquila. The first one was recorded in 389 B.C.E. and said to have been as bright as Venus. The other novae observed as the Nova Aquilae in 1918 which briefly shone brighter than Altair.
There are a couple of meteor showers associated with this constellation. They are the June Aquilids and the Epsilon Aquilids.
The June Aquilids meteor shower has only been studied by radar and are most active on June 2nd and 3rd.
The Epsilon Aquilids meteor shows is active in mid-March and is best seen using optical aids such as telescopes.
Etymology – Swan
Also known as: The Northern Cross, Ornis (Greek “bird”)
The constellation of Cygnus, the Swan is considered one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, particularly during the summer and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
To the Greeks, this constellation was known as Ornis, meaning “bird.” It was later named Cygnus by the Romans who proceeded to adapt several Greek myths to try and explain the name or connection.
While there are many people in Greek mythology who bear the name of Cycnus, the constellation of Cygnus is also associated with several stories. One of the more well known stories is that of the god Zeus and his transformation into a swan to try and seduce Leda or in some variations, Nemesis. Another well known story connected to this constellation is that of the story of Phaethon and his friend Cycnus.
The constellation known as Cygnus 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 16th in size. Pseudo-Eratosthenes and Hyginus’ Poetical Astronomy are the earliest sources of Greek astronomy and constellations that make the connection of the story of Zeus and Leda with his transformation into a swan.
Constellations bordering with Cycgnus are: Cepheus, Draco, Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Lacerta, The best time to spot Cygnus is during the month of September in the Northern Hemisphere.
Many of the older, traditional names for the star in Cygnus such as Albireo, Deneb, Rukh and Sadr clearly point towards a Middle Eastern connection. In Arabia, the constellation was known as: Al Ta’ir al Arduf, “the Flying Eagle.” Other names include Al Ta’ir al Arduf, Al Radif and Al Dajajah “the Hen.”
They clearly saw a bird, sometimes said to be an Eagle or Pigeon, but frequently, as the traditional names point to, a Hen.
The Arabs also have an asterism called Al Fawaris or “the Riders” that’s found within Cygnus.
Chinese Astronomy & Mythology
The constellation of Cygnus lays in the area of the night sky symbolized by The Black Tortoise of the North or Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ. Modern Chinese has adopted the name of tiān é zuò, meaning “the swan constellation.”
The Chinese also know the constellation of Cygnus as Que Qiao, the “magpie bridge.” In the story associated with it, there was a pair of lovers, Niu Lang (a Shepherd) and Zhi Nu (a Weaver) who were separated by the Goddess of Heaven because Zhi Nu is a fairy and due to celestial decrees and mandates, wasn’t allowed to be with a mortal.
When the Goddess learned that the two were secretly married, she took Zhi Nu with her up into the heavens and created a river, represented by the Milky Way in the sky to keep the two separated.
Niu Lang was still determined and took his and Zhi Nu’s two children to Heaven so they could all be together. The Goddess however still forbade the two lovers to be together but on seeing their bitter tears, she relented and allowed that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month the two could be reunited. So once a year, all the magpies in the world come together to form a bridge over the river and help the two lovers unite and see each other. The star Deneb in the story either marks the start of the bridge or represents a fairy who chaperones the two lovers when they meet.
The Qixi Festival, also known as the Qiqiao Festival and Double Seventh Festival and even the Magpie Festival commemorates the joyful reunion of these two lovers. It is a variable holiday held on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in China. It is celebrated and observed in a couple other countries like Japan as Tanabata in Korea as Chilseok. It is a festival and holiday comparable to the European celebration of Valentine’s Day.
The legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu is one of four folk legends regarding love and romance. Young girls pray to Zhi Nu for skillful hands for sewing and young newly weds will worship this celestial couple and bid them farewell before moving on in their own marriage and happiness. Now days though, young people tend to favor the Western celebration of Valentine’s Day more then the Qixi Festival though their story is still told and passed on.
In Tonga, Cygnus is known as Tuula-lupe. The Tuamotus called it Fanui-raro or Fanui-tai. The star Deneb is also given the name of Fanui-tai. The star Gamma Cygni is called Fanui-runga. In New Zealand, it is known as Mara-tea. The star Beta Cygni was likely called Whetu-kaupo. In the Society Islands, it is known as Pirae-tea or Taurua-i-te-haapa-raa-manu.
Zeus And Leda
One of the more well known stories connected to the Cygnus constellation is the story of Zeus disguising himself as a swan in order to seduce Leda. In this guise, Zeus behaved much like a swain, which means a lover or wooer.
Leda was the wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. She’s known for giving birth to two sets of twins; the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. When Leda laid with Zeus, their union produced an egg. Later that night, when she laid with her lawful husband Tyndareus, their union resulted in another egg. The immortal twins Pollux and Helen are said to have been fathered by Zeus while the mortal twins Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus.
Zeus And Nemesis
A variation to the above myth is that instead of Zeus seducing Leda, he seduces Nemesis, the goddess of divine justice and retribution. She was also the goddess of the Pelopennesian cult. Other sources are more clear that Nemesis lived in Rhamnus (located to the North-East of Athens) where this cult may have been. When Zeus went to seduce Nemesis, she changed herself into a variety of different animals before taking the form of a goose to escape him. Zeus continued to pursue Nemesis, each time taking the form of a larger, swifter animal until he turned into a swan before he was able to catch and rape her.
A variation of the story with Nemesis that’s told by Hyginus is that Zeus had turned himself into a swan and pretends to be escaping from an eagle. Nemesis protected the bird, offering sanctuary. It’s after words, when Nemesis has gone to sleep with the swan on her lap that she discovers the truth of who the bird really is.
In either version of the story told, Nemesis ends up laying an egg that she leaves in a swamp. This egg was found either by Hermes or a shepherd who brings it to Leda who keeps the egg in a chest until it hatches. It is from this egg that Helen of Troy is hatched. As a result of his success, Zeus placed an image of the swan up into the heavens.
The great musician Orpheus was said to have been turned into swan after being murdered by a group of Ciconian or Thracian Maenads. In this retelling of the story, Orpheus was placed up into the heavens as a swan next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Cycnus And Phyllius
Another myth connected to this constellation is that of Cycnus and Phyllius. This Cycnus committed suicide and was turned into a swan after he was shamed and refused a tame bull that he demanded from Phyllius.
King Of Kolonai
Among many ancient Greek figures to have the name Cygnus or Cycnus, is a son of Poseidon and as well a king who fought in the Trojan war. He was killed by the hero Achilles on the first day and turned into a swan at his death by his father to save him.
The Death Of Phaethon
This story is perhaps the best known and most associated story to the Cygnus constellation.
Phaethon was the son of Clymene, whose husband was the Egyptian King Merops. Eventually, Clymene told Phaethon that Merops wasn’t his father and that it was the Sun-god Helios (or Apollo). Afterwards, Phaethon would boast and brag to his friends how his real father was a powerful god. Phaethon’s friends teased him and said he was lying. Hurt by this, Phaethon went to his mother Clymene, who then told him to go to the Sun-god and ask him yourself of the truth.
Helios was greatly pleased on seeing his son Phaethon and promised him anything that he asked for in order to prove to his friend who his father is. To Helios’ horror or dismay, Phaethon demanded to drive the Sun-chariot across the sky. Helios tried to dissuade Phaethon, telling him that driving the chariot was too dangerous for mortals, even demigods to drive. Unable to deter Phaethon, Helios relented, granting Phaethon his request.
Phaethon soon found himself loosing control of the chariot as the horses realized that someone new and inexperienced was holding the reigns. Like any such spirited animals who push to see how far they can go and do what they please, the horses took their own lead, racing across the sky towards the eastern horizon and heavens.
The horses’ uncontrolled pathway across the heavens left a scorch mark across the sky that became the Milky Way. The Earth became cold as the Sun-chariot was too high. As the horses continued their uncontrolled trek, they raced down close to the Earth, scorching the land across Africa and creating a great desert.
Making it worse, a frightened Phaethon saw the chariot racing towards a giant scorpion, the Scorpius constellation as the horses continued their uncheck race across the heavens. Pulling wildly on the reigns, Phaethon realized his folly and foolishness to not listen to his father.
To keep the Earth and Heavens from seeing more destruction from the out-of-control chariot, Zeus, the King of the Gods hurled one of his thunderbolts, striking Phaethon in the process. Phaethon’s body fell into the river Eridanus while the horses returned to their stables and back to Helios.
Phaethon’s friend or lover, Cycnus was so distraught over his death, that he went down to the river where he wept bitterly until the god Apollo took pity and turned Cycnus into a swan and eventually the gods decided to place him up into the heavens as the Cygnus constellation.
Another version to this story is that Phaethon and Cycnus were racing their respective chariots across the sky when they got too close to the Sun. Their chariots burned up and they fell to the Earth with Phaethon falling into the river Eridanus. When Cycnus came to and found where his friend was at, he dove in after to try and retrieve his friend’s body for burial and it’s from that action, that the gods or Apollo (sometimes its listed as Zeus) turn Cycnus into a swan and place him up into the heavens due to the level of grief Cycnus held and the gods sympathy and pity for him.
In other slight versions to this story, Cycnus is not only mentioned as a musician, but a King of the Ligurians. When Phaethon fell into the river Eridanus, Cycnus dove into the water, swimming back and forth searching for his friend’s body so he could bury them. Regardless of which variations of the story are retold and mentioned, Cycnus is still turned into a swan by the god Apollo and placed up into the heavens to form the Cygnus or Swan Constellation.
The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both of whom are named Cycnus. They often get confused together, though they both have in common getting killed by the hero Hercules and being turned into swans at their death.
Sacred Bird Of Apollo
While many deities have animals associated with them, Apollo is best known and associated with the swan. It was believed that large flocks of these birds could be found living on the mythical northern river of Eridanos in Hyperborea. These flocks were said to circle Apollo’s holy shrine, singing hymns. Another belief was that the people of Hyperborea, on reaching old age, that instead of dying, would turn into swans after bathing in the bitumen swamp of the river.
This phrase refers to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement. Most often this is used for a person’s last piece of creative work, or performance, particularly in literature, music, or art.
One origin for this phrase is from the story of Cycnus, the friend or lover of Phaeton. The same Phaethon who begged his father Helios to be able to drive the sun chariot across the sky that ended in disaster and his death. While there are a few different versions of this story, it is generally agreed that Cycnus, being in such grief over the death and loss of his friend was changed into a swan by the god Apollo who took pity on him.
In addition, the Mute Swan was believed to sing a song at its death, a song considered to be the sweetest of all bird songs.
Queen Cassiopeia’s Pet
A rather minor note is that some think that Cygnus represents the swan that Queen Cassiopeia kept.
The constellation of Cygnus, along with 18 other constellations of: Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
All of 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.
Cygnus, along with the other avian constellations of Aquila and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
The Northern Cross
Among Christians, the constellation of Cygnus is known as the Northern Cross. Many Christians have seen the Cross or Crux that Jesus hung on.
Five stars form this asterism. They are: Deneb (Alpha Cygni), Delta Cygni, Albireo (Beta Cygni), Gienah (Epsilon Cygni) and Sadr (Gamma Cygni) forming the center.
It has been noted by some archaeologists that there are megalithic sites such as those found in Ireland that appear to be aligned with the Cygnus constellation. The Avebury, Wayland Smithy long barrow and Callanish are two such places aligned with either the rising or setting stars within Cygnus.
The swan, like many other birds are seen as symbolic of carrying the souls of the deceased to the after life. Many Palaeolithic sites and cultures have used birds symbolically for death and rebirth. Even the Greeks saw birds as psychopomps or “soul-carriers” and it been a very common belief among several cultures of Europe.
With such a connection to death and rebirth and Cygnus’ shape in the heavens, it would be very easy for early Christians to adapt and adopt this belief to their faith as the Cross.
Stars Of Cygnus
The stars Delta and Epsilon Cygni are used to depicted Cgynus’ wings while the star Deneb depicts the tail and Albireo represents the tip of the swan’s beak.
Alpha Cygni – Also known as Deneb, it is one of the brightest stars seen in the night sky. It is a blue-white supergiant star and 19th in brightness. The name Deneb comes from the Arabic word dhaneb, meaning “tail.” It is from the phrase Dhanab ad-Dajajah, which means: “the tail of the hen.” Within the constellation of Cygnus, it is one corner of the Summer Triangle with the stars Altair found in the constellation Auila and Vega, found in the constellation Lyra.
Beta Cygni – Also known as Albireo, it is generally considered to be the head of the swan and sometimes called “the beak star.” The name Albireo is likely the result of a mistranslation from Arabic into Latin where ab ireo was thought to be the name of a particular herb. The original translated name in Arabic was from the Greek word for bird which is “ornis.” It is a binary star and the fifth brightest star in Cygnus. It is one of the stars that form the Northern Cross.
Gamma Cygni – Also known as Sadr which comes from the Arabic word for “the chest.” This star is also sometime known as Pectus Gallinae, which is Latin for “the hen’s chest.” It is the star found in the center of the Northern Cross asterism.
Delta Cygni – Also known as Rukh. The name Rukh is Persian in origin and is related to Urkhga in Akkadian. The star is named after the huge, mythical bird of prey known as a Roc that was capable of carrying off elephants. In the year 11,250 C.E. this star will take the position of the North Star for a period of about 400 years.
Epsilon Cygni – Also known as Gienah, this star shares the same traditional name with Gamma Corvi from the Corvus constellation. The name Gienah comes from the Arabic word janah meaning “the wing.”
Kappa Cygni – This star marks the tip of Cygnus’ left wing. Its most notable for a meteor shower, the Kappa Cygnids that take place in August.
North America Nebula
Or NGC 7000 is one of the most well-known nebulae found within the Cgynus constellation as it is visible within the night sky without the aid of any telescopes as a bright patch of the Milky Way. Due to its characteristic shape, which resembles the North American Continent, it is only visible in long-exposure photographs and for those using telescopes; it can be difficult to spot as the surface area for brightness is low. It was first discovered by William Herschel in 1786.
This is the largest star-forming region that has some of the brightest and most massive stars known such as Cygnus OB2-12 and Cygnus OB2.
Also known as NGC 6946; this galaxy is known for the number of supernovae that have been found there. It is a spiral galaxy that borders the edge of Cygnus with the constellation Cepheus. NGC 6946 was discovered on September 9, 1798 by the German-born British astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel. So far nine supernovae have been observed within this galaxy.
There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation of Cygnus. They are the October Cygnids and the Kappa Cygnids, a minor meteor shower that occurs in August.
Alternate spellings – Κύκνος, Kyknos, Cygnus
Etymology – Swan
When researching this name, I’ve found that the name Cycnus can refer to at least four different people from Greek Mythology. Though there are several others who have minor importance when compared to the primary four.
1) The Friend Of Phaethon
The first Cycnus is the son of Shtenelus, the king of Liguria. After the death of his close friend or lover Phaeton, Cycnus went down to the river Eridanos where his friend perished to mourn. Cycnus was in such a deep level of grief over the loss that the gods, in some instances this is specifically the god Apollo who took pity on Cycnus and turned him into a Swan. Even as a swan, Cycnus still remembered Phaethon and would avoid the heat of the sun.
According to Ovid, Cycnus was a distant relative of Phaethon on his mother’s side. According to Virgil, Cycnus grieved the loss of his friend into old age that his graying hair turned into feathers and he was transformed then into a swan at that point.
A couple of different Greeks such as Pausanias and Servius wrote of Cycnus’ musical skill. It is Servius who wrote that after Apollo changed Cycnus into a swan, he was placed up into the heavens as the constellation Cygnus. Servius also mentions that Cycnus had a son by the name of Cupavo. According to Hyginus, Cycnus’ story is the origin of the phrase “swan song” referring to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement.
2) King Of Kolonai
The name of the second Cycnus is the son of Poseidon and Calcyce, the daughter of Hecaton. This Cycnus ruled the city of Kolonai in southern Troad, a region of Anatolia.
Cycnus married Procleia, the daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. Sometimes Procleia is listed as the daughter of Clytius who is the son of previously mentioned Laomedon. In either event, Cycnus and Procleia had two children Tenes and Hemithea.
When Procleia died, Cycnus married again, this time to a Philonome, the daughter of Tragasus, also known as Polyboea or Scamandria. Philonome fell in love with her stepson Tene and when he rejected her advances, she tried to tell Cycnus that his son tried to rape her.
Angry or despairing, Cycnus ordered that his two children be put in a chest and thrown out to sea. Cycnus soon learned the truth and instead had Philonome buried alive and he was able to discover his children were still alive on the island of Tenedos. He tried to go there to reconcile with his children, but Tenes hearing none of it, cut the anchor rope to Cycnus’ ship, preventing him from being able to dock.
After all this, Cycnus went on to support the Trojans in the Trojan War against the Greeks. He was killed on the first day of war by the hero Achilles and was also changed into a swan. In the Ovid, he is said to have fought valiantly, killing a thousand foes. With Cycnus’ death, the Greeks headed towards Kolonai, seizing it after Cycnus’ surviving children Cobis, Corianus and Glauce be handed over to them.
It should be noted that this Cycnus’ story doesn’t appear in the Iliad but does appear in the Cypria. He’s mentioned twice by Pindar which some historians use to suggest this story had merit by the 5th century B.C.E. In the mid-first century B.C.E., the historian Diodorus Siculus attributes this story of Cycnus to the people of the island Tenedos, whose name is derived from Cycnus’ son Tenes.
Twelfth century Byzantine poet John Tzetzes makes mention of a Scamandrodice who was Cycnus’ mother. She had abandoned Cycnus by the sea shore and he was rescued by some fishermen who named him Cycnus after seeing a swan fly by over head.
Another account says that Cycnus got his name of Swan due to his feminine features of white skin and fair hair.
3) The Son Of Apollo
The son of Apollo and Hyrie (or Thyrie) the daughter of Amphinomus, this Cycnus lived in the country between Pleuron and Calydon. He was considered a rather good looking and handsome though arrogant and often disrespectful especially those youths who admired his great skill at hunting.
Cycnus’ attitude and arrogance eventually drove everyone away except for Phylius. Even Phylius’ deep devotion and admiration wasn’t enough to get through to Cycnus. Wanting to be rid of Phylius, Cycnus challenged to what he thought would be three impossible tasks.
The first task given to Phylius is that he was to kill a lion threatening their town without the aid or use of any weapons. Phylius’ tactic to win this task was to consume so much food and wine as to vomit it up in the spot where he knew the lion would show up. When it did so, the lion ate up all the refuse, becoming drunk on the wine. Phylius was able to come in and used his own clothing to strangle the beast, killing it.
The second task given to Phylius was to catch two man-eating vultures of immense size who were also threatening their town, again without the use of any weapons. As he contemplated how to peform this task, Phylius saw an eagle drop a dead hare to the ground. Having an idea, Phylius took the hare’s blood and covered himself with it, then lay down in order to pretend to be dead. Eventually the two vultures dropped down to where he lay and Phylius was able to catch both of them by their feet and brought them to where Cycnus awaited his return.
The third and final task was for Phylius to bring a bull to Zeus’ alter with his own bare hands. At a loss on how to perform this last task, Phylius pray to Heracles for aid. Finished with his prayer, Phylius saw two bulls fighting over a cow. He waited until the bulls’ fight was over and one of the bulls fell to the ground. At this, Phylius was able to go over and grab one of the bulls by its legs and drag the bull to Zeus’ alter.
Having performed the tasks set before him, Heracles intervened once more so that Phylius would cease taking orders from Cycnus. Seeing this and feeling disgraced, Cycnus committed suicide by throwing himself into a lake known as Conope. His mother Thyrie also did like and at their deaths, the god Apollo changed both mother and son into swans. The lake became known as Swan Lake and when Phylius eventually died, he was buried near its shores.
The story was recorded by Antoninus Liberalis. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he has Phylius (or Phyllius) perform the three tasks but at the end, refuse to bring the bull to Cycnus. Feeling scorned, Cycnus jumps off a cliff and is changed into a swan instead of falling to his death. His mother Hyrie, unaware of Cycnus’ transformation and believing her son to be dead, dissolves away in a flood of tears forming the lake Hyrie.
It should be noted too that in both Antoninus and Ovid’s tellings of the stories, that Cycnus and Phylius were lovers and that theirs is the story of love spurned.
4) The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both named Cycnus and they often get confused together as to who’s who, their specific stories behind them and how similar those stories are. Pseudo-Apollodorus writes of the two Cycnus’ as distinct, separate persons.
Cycnus is one of three children of Ares to have fought the hero Heracles. Four when you remember that there are two sons of the same name. The other children of Ares to have fought against Heracles are Diomedes from Thrake and the Amazon Hippolyte. The Cycnus from Macedonia is often described as being a brother to Diomedes while the Thessalian Cycnus is the son-in-law of King Ceyx who sponsored the hero Heracles’ northern campaigns.
The first son of Ares has Pelopia for his mother. He had set himself up as a bandit prince near the sacred grove of Apollon at Pagasia Itonos along the Thessalian coast. This Cycnus was also the son-in-law of King Ceyx of Trakhis. Cycnus would rob the offerings being sent to the Delphios up north. When Heracles was passing through this region on his way back from his campaign against the Lapithai to visit King Ceyx, Cycnus challenged the hero to a duel.
Heracles quickly killed his challenger and Ares changed his son into a swan at his death. When Ares then went to avenge his son’s death, Zeus prevented the two from fighting by throwing a thunderbolt between them.
The second son of Ares has Pyrene for his mother. This Cycnus was from either Pagasae, Thessaly or by the river Echedorus in Macedonia. He was a giant who was so murderous and blood thirsty that he was building a temple out of bones and skulls from travelers to dedicate to his father Ares. One of the men said to have been murdered by Cycnus is Lycus of Thrace.
When the hero Heracles encountered this Cycnus, they engaged in battle where Heracles killed him. Enraged at the death of his son, Ares sought revenge for this son but was again stopped by a bolt of lightning thrown by the god Zeus. Like so many of the other Cycnus’ he too was also changed into a swan at his death.
According to the ancient Greek writer, Euripides, Heracles shot Cycnus with arrows and that this event takes place near the river Anaurus.
Shield of Heracles
In this poem, both Heracles and Iolaus encounter Cycnus and Ares on their way to Trachis. The goddess Athena appears telling Heracles that Zeus has given power to him to kill Cycnus and how to do the deed. The hero is not to touch Cycnus’ body, not to claim any armor as trophies and that finally he’s to hit Ares using a spear on an unarmored part of his body should the god attack.
Cycnus and Heracles go on about their duel and the hero kills Cycnus. Enraged, Ares is about to get revenge only to have Athena intervene saying that it is not yet Heracles’ time to die. As he’s been attacked, Heracles does attack Ares and the gods’ sons Phobos and Deimos come rescue him, taking Ares back to Olympus. Cycnus was then buried but his tomb later destroyed in a flood sent by Apollo.
Others Named Cycnus
There are a few others in Greek legend, stories and history who also have the same name of Cycnus. Some of them are:
• One of the suitors of Penelope.
• The son of King Eredion of Achaea. In one version he seduced Leda, causing her to become the mother of the triplets the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) and Helen. In other versions, these children are fathered by Zeus who approached her in the shape of swan.
• A blunder for Guneus in Hyginus’ Fab manuscript, which is a list of the Achaean leaders who were against the city of Troy. This may be a different Cycnus than the King of Kolonai who also participated in the Trojan War.