Category Archives: Swan
Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)
Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter
Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.
This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?
To answer that, we start at the beginning.
Animal: Goose, Swan
Day of the Week: Friday
Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving
Symbols: Staff, Knife,
What’s In A Name?
The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.
Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.
Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.
Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.
Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.
Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.
The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.
As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.
In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”
Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.
Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.
In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.
Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.
Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.
Protector Of Women & Children
In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.
Goddess Of Nature
In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.
It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.
In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.
During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.
Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.
Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman
During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.
These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.
Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.
Other Perchten names are:
Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.
Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.
Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.
Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.
Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.
Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.
For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.
This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.
For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.
In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.
In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.
A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.
Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.
Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.
Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.
This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.
In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.
Syno-Deities & Figures
Freyja – Norse
Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.
Frigg – Norse
The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.
Holda – Germanic
The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.
La Befana – Italy
The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.
Saint Lucy – Germany
A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.
A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.
Etymology: “Rising from the Sea,” Aphros “Sea Foam”
Other Names and Epithets: Αφροδιτη, Acraea, Amathusia, Ambologera (”She who Postpones Old Age”), Anadyomene, Antheia, Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), Aphrodite en kopois (“Aphrodite of the Gardens”), Chryse (mythology), Cytherea, Lady of Cythera, Despoina, Aphrodite Pandemos, Aphrodite Ourania or Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), Aphrodite Benetrix (Married Love), Aphrodite Porne (Erotic Love), Pandemos, Urania, Lady of Cyprus, Philommeidḗs (“Smile-Loving” or “Laughter-Loving”), Eleemon (“The Merciful”), Genetyllis (“Mother”), Potnia (“Mistress”), Enoplios (“Armed”), Morpho (“Shapely”), Melainis (“Black One”), Skotia (“Dark One”), Androphonos (“Killer of Men”), Anosia (“Unholy”), Tymborychos (“Gravedigger”), Aphrodite Pontia (“Of the Deep Sea”), and Aphrodite Euploia (“Of the Fair Voyage”)
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, specifically sexual love, beauty, desire and fertility. With an irresistible charm and beauty, Aphrodite is used to getting her way as many a mortal and god sought her favor. For those who spurned her, Aphrodite could be vindictive like many a Greek deity’s reputation for pettiness. Aphrodite is without a doubt, one of the best-known Olympian goddesses. In more modern times, Aphrodite is still seen one of many feminine icons from mythology who continues to feature in Western literature and arts.
Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart is Venus and their myths become very intertwined over the millennia to the point that their names are often interchangeable in Aphrodite’s myths.
Animal: Dolphin, Dove, Ducks, Geese, Heron, Ram, Sparrow, Swan, Tortoise
Colors: Blue, Green, Scarlet, White, Gold
Day of the Week: Friday
Gemstones: Lapis Lazuli, Pearl
Month: April, February, July
Patron of: Love, Lovers, Prostitutes
Plant: Apple, Lime Tree, Mandrake, Myrtle, Myrrh, Palm, Pomegranate, Poppy, Rose
Sphere of Influence: Love in all of its forms, physical, sensual, passion, relationships
Symbols: Girdle, Golden Apples, Scallop Shells, Mirror, the Ocean, Chocolate
Aphrodite Areia – Helmet, Lance, Shield, Sword, Victory
Aphrodite Pandemos – Ram
Aphrodite Urania – Tortoise for Domestic Modesty and Chastity
In Classic Greek art, Aphrodite is often depicted as a blue-eyed, golden-haired woman with pale skin. For the Greeks, she was the very ideal of beauty. Statues of Aphrodite depict her as the height of Grecian physical beauty. At first, there was nothing to distinguish Aphrodite from other statues of goddesses, not until around the 5th century B.C.E. Statues of Aphrodite from Cyrene and Esquiline in the 1st century B.C.E. were called Aphrodite Kallipygos or “Aphrodite with a Beautiful Derriere.”
Classical art and sculpture from the 5th century B.C.E. will show Aphrodite as fully clothed, once the 1st century B.C.E. comes, do nude statues of Aphrodite appear. The most famous of the Aphrodite sculptures was carved by Praxieteles. It is during the Hellenistic era of Greece that the first nude statue of Aphrodite, the Venus de Milo appears in the 2nd century B.C.E.
Aphrodite is often shown accompanied with her son Eros, also a god of love.
What’s In A Name
We know the first part of Aphrodite’s name, aphros means sea foam or foam and alludes to her birth from the ocean when Uranus’ gentiles were thrown in the sea by his son Cronus. There were early attempts by scholars to link Aphrodite’s name to a Greek or Indo-European origin. Given the strong connections of Aphrodite to the Middle East and likely of Semitic origin.
Nineteenth and early twentieth scholars who accepted the etymology of “sea form” for the first part of Aphrodite’s name have tried to connect the second part of the name “-odite” to mean either “wanderer” or “brite.” As there’s disagreements, some scholars have even gone so far as to link Aphrodite’s name to the Assyrian barīrītu, the name of a female demon found in Babylonian texts. Others have tried for the Etruscan word of “eproni” for “lord” making the last part of Aphrodite’s name an honorific. The name continues to be debated as to what the correct translation and etymology for Aphrodite’s name is.
The epithets of Urania for Heavenly Dweller and Pandemos for “Of all the people” likely try to connect her as a goddess of universal love and everyone. In his Symposium, Plato argues that the epitaphs of Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos are two separate deities.
There is a lot of evidence and discussions that Aphrodite very strongly began as the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar or the Phoenician Astarte and the Syro-Palestinian goddess Ashtart.
Pausanias records that the first people to worship Aphrodite were the Assyrians and then the people of Cyprus, followed by the Phoenicians at Ascalon. From there, Aphrodite’s cult and worship spread throughout most of Greece.
Looking at the epitaph of Aphrodite Ourania shows a connection to Inanna as the Queen of Heaven. Early art and literature that describes Aphrodite is very similar to Inanna. Like Inanna, Aprodite was worshiped as a war goddess, at least in the second century B.C.E. Pausanias makes mention where in Sparta, she is worshipped as Aphrodite Areia, meaning “warlike.” Pausanias also records that early statues in Sparta and Cythera show Aprodite bearing arms. Modern scholars use this connection of Aphrodite with her Middle Eastern origins. It makes sense when ancient Grecian culture once stretched as far as where modern Turkey and Syria are today.
Doves – One of Aphrodite’s symbols, the dove is also connected to Ishtar as one of her symbols. Scholars have noted that the Greek word for dove is “peristera” is likely comes from the Semitic phrase of “perah Istar” meaning “bird of Ishtar.” How interesting. Doves appear in a lot of ancient Greek art for pottery, reliefs, and sculptures depicting Aphrodite.
At one point, early comparative scholars have tried to link Aprodite with Eos, the Greek goddess of the Dawn. It works and relies on linking to the Proto-Indo European Dawn goddess of Haéusōs who is then linked to the Greek Eos, the Latin Aurora and the Sanskrit Ushas.
Both Aphrodite and Eos are known for their erotic beauty and sexuality. They have both had relationships with mortal lovers (as have a good number of Greek deities). Add in, that both goddesses are associated with the colors of red, white, and gold. The myth of Aphrodite rising from the sea has a similarity to the Rigvedic myth of Indra defeating Vrtra and freeing Ushas. Which then brings the last comparison of Aphrodite and the Indo-European goddess Haéusōs both having a parentage that links them to of a sky deity.
Maybe, but it is the alternative mythological and etymological link when the Middle Eastern connection isn’t accepted. Plus, the whole Proto-Indo-European language is largely theoretical with many modern scholars leaning towards the Mesopotamian connections.
As a goddess of love, beauty and sexual desires, Aphrodite was and still is worshiped by a wide variety of people from nearly every walk of life. For ancient Greece, this is the everyday people up to the higher, ruling class
As a very sensual goddess of love, particularly sexual love and beauty, Aphrodite’s priestesses were known to engage in sexual activities themselves as part of worshiping her. It should be noted that this didn’t make them prostitutes, it was part of the job description for priestess of Aphrodite. If you’re seeing every woman as a goddess to held sacred, cherished, respected and worshiped, you’re not far from worshiping Aphrodite or any goddess or god of love. It is going to get carnal.
As such, Aphrodite had several shrines and temples dedicated to her. Her main temples and cults were to be found in Cythera and Cyprus.
Gynaikonomoi – If it hasn’t been noticed before, women in many Greek and even Roman myths aren’t treated well, whether goddess or mortal. The Gynaikonomoi or Magistrates in Charge of Women are mentioned in the 1st century C.E. Sparta.
Marriage – Pausanias records the practice of the mothers of brides sacrificing to a wooden image known as Aphrodite Hera, an epitaph of either goddess connecting the ideals of love and marriage. Pausanias goes on to mention a seated statue of Aphrodite Morpho or the “The Fair Shaped Aphrodite” that had a veil on her head and chains on her feet. Lovely. This statuary clearly meant to connect the role of brides and a woman’s place in a marriage with her duties with wives being faithful to husbands.
Prostitutes – Yes, Aphrodite is the patron goddess of prostitutes. The city of Corinth was known for the high number of prostitutes and courtesans. With Corinth also being one of Aphrodite’s main cult centers with a major temple, it led to early scholars believing in the concept of “sacred prostitution” in Greco-Roman cultures with nearby islands of Cyprus and Cythera and even Sicily being associated with prostitution. There are records of many dedications to Aphrodite found in poetry and pottery by courtesans that have been found. Plus, you add in that Aphrodite’s Mesopotamian counterpart Inanna is also associated with prostitution. While the idea of “sacred prostitution” persists in some schools of thought, the idea is getting discarded more and more.
Amathus – This is one of Aphrodite’s centers of worship on the island of Cyprus.
Corinth – On mainland Greece, this city was one of Aphrodite’ centers of worship.
Cyprus – Aphrodite’s center of worship was clearly on this island as evidenced by the numerous sanctuaries dedicated to this goddess. Aphrodite would be called Cyprian for her connection to this island as her birthplace.
Cythera – Another island where Aphrodite’s worship was prominent. It had been a Minoan colony at one point. Some myths will place Aphrodite’s birth as being here, giving her the epitaph of Cytherea. The island was certainly a stopping point for the trade route between Crete and Peloponesus which in turn could mean that the myths might have evidence of how Aphrodite’s cult came from the Middle East to Greece.
Pandemos – This the oldest of Aphrodite’s cult-sites that dates back to 230 B.C.E. Here, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Pandemos or “Aphrodite who is Common to all the People.” This Aphrodite was associated with the hero Theseus and worshipers of Aphrodite Pandemos sought out her blessings for uniting the people of Athens. Not just for personal relationships, but political connections too. The cult of Aphrodite Pandemos is very likely led to the formation of democracy.
This city located on Cyprus is the location for one of Aphrodite’s most well-known temples, especially in the ancient world. It is thought that the rites dedicated to Aphrodite were a blend of oriental and Aegean influences that could ultimately trace their origins to the Mesopotamian Ishtar and Phoenician Astarte. Archeological studies have shown that the cult of Aphrodite dates back to the Late Bronze Age, roughly 1200 B.C.E. and continue uninterrupted up to the Late Roman Era towards the 4th century C.E. There are suggestions that Aphrodite’s worship could possibly go back to the Chalcolithic Era. Female figurines and charms have been found dating to the third millennium and religious sanctuaries called temenos were well established before the construction of any Late Bronze Age structures.
Prior to this, Pausanias thought Aphrodite’s cult was introduced from Syria and of Phoenician origin. Prior to more modern Archeology, people that that Aphrodite’s worship and cult dated back before Homer’s time of around 700 B.C.E. with mention of Aphrodite’s altar in the Odyssey.
Paphos is also the location that the Greeks say where Aphrodite landed when she arrived at Cyprus when she rose out of the sea. An oracle was also to found here in Paphos. The Sanctuary of Aphrodite Paphia was a pilgrimage destination for her followers. The city gains its name from Paphos, the son of Pygmalion and Galatea.
During this era of classical Greek history that many are familiar with, the Greeks began to identify Aphrodite with the Egyptian goddesses of Hathor and Isis. Aphrodite would become the patron goddess of the Lagid queens. As was Egyptian custom, Queen Arsinoe II was claimed to be the mortal incarnation of Aphrodite.
Aphrodite’s worship spread to the city of Alexandria with many temples dedicated to her that could be found around the city. The cult of Adonis was introduced to the city by Queen Arisone II. The Tessarakonteres galley had a temple dedicated to Aphrodite with a marble statue. Another temple dedicated to Aphrodite Hathor would be established in the second century B.C.E. at Philae. Statuettes of Aphrodite would become very common for people to do personal devotions during the Ptolemaic era in Egypt and last through when it came under Roman rule.
The Romans readily adopted and identified Aphrodite with their own goddess Venus who was originally a goddess of agriculture, fertility, vegetation, and Spring. This would become official in the third century B.C.E. when the cult of Venus Erycina is introduced to Rome by way of the Grecian sanctuary for Aphrodite on Mount Eryx in Sicily. From here, the iconography and imagery of Aphrodite along with her myths would be attached to Venus.
Further cementing this adaptation is that Aphrodite was revered as the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas in Greek myths and the Romans hailed him as the ancestor to Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. With this connection, Venus as Venus Genetrix, the mother of the Roman nation became prominent. The Greek worship of Aphrodite began to emphasis more and more her connection to the city of Troy and Aeneas. More and more Roman influences and elements began to connect Aphrodite as more maternal and militaristic and more connected to the bureaucracy that Aphrodite became a divine guardian of numerous magistrates.
Parentage and Family
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born from the dismembered genitals of Uranus after Cronus cut them off. She rose up from the sea where they landed after being thrown.
Sometimes the primordial sea goddess Thalassa is given as Aphrodite’s mother in the myth with Uranus.
According to Homer’s Iliad, Zeus and Dione are her parents.
As a result of mixed parentage, depending on if you go by Hesiod’s Theogony or Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite is going have several siblings.
Aeacus, Angelos, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Charities, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses, the Moirai, or the Titans, the Cyclopes, the Meliae, the Erinyes (Furies), the Giants, the Hekatonkheires
Hephaestus – Husband and god of Smithing and Volcanoes.
With Adonis, Aphrodite is the mother of Beroe and Golgos.
With the god Ares, Aphrodite is the mother of: the Erotes: Anteros, Eros, Himeros and Pothos (though sometimes Pothos is listed as Eros’ son). Other children of theirs are: Phobos, Deimos, Phlegyas, Harmonia and Adrestia.
In early myth, Anteros was originally born from the sea alongside Aphrodite, later on, he comes her son by Ares.
With Butes, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Meligounis, and a number of unnamed daughters.
With Dionysus, Aphrodite is the mother of Hymenaios, Iacchus, and the Charities (Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia)
With the god Hermes, Aphrodite is the mother of the androgynous deity Hermaphroditus.
With Phaethon, Aphrodite is the mother of Astynous.
With the god Poseidon, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Rhodus and Herophilus.
With the mortal Prince Anchises, Aphrodite is the mother of Aeneas
Peitho has no father is given for him.
Priapus – either the gods Adonis, Ares or Dionysus is their father.
Aphrodite is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Also called Aphrodisia, as the name implies, this was a festival held in Aphrodite’s honor and was celebrated in many places around Greece during midsummer. It was a festival involved substances believed or known to cause sexual arousal and desire. This festival was most notably in Athens and Cornith.
In Athens, Aphrodisia would be celebrated in the month of Hekatombaion to celebrate Aphrodite’s rule in the unification of Attica. In the old Grecian calendar, the month of Hekatombaion corresponded with the month of July and was the first month of the year.
The priests of Aphrodite would purify the Temple of Aphrodite Pandemos with the blood of a dove that had been sacrificed. The altars would than be anointed and the statues of Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Peitho would be carried down to be ritually bathed.
This is another festival that honored Aphrodite in Athens. Not much is known about this festival.
The fourth day of every month was also held sacred to Aphrodite.
Attendants Of Aphrodite
Charities – The Graces in Roman mythology, this group of goddesses were known to accompany Aphrodite. They were Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Good Cheer”), and Thalia (“Abundance.”) They were worshiped as goddesses in Greek long before the arrival of Aphrodite.
Erotes – Aphrodite’s many sons who all presided over a different aspect of love.
Eros – Is the primary son who most people think of as accompanying Aphrodite. Most people are familiar with his Roman name of Cupid. By either name, Eros is the god of lust and sexual desire. Eros is described as one of four original primeval forces born at the beginning of time in Hesiod’s Theogony. After the birth of Aphrodite, Eros joins Himeros to become one of her companions.
Harmonia – A minor goddess of harmony. She is Aphrodite’s daughter with Ares, she is sometimes seen accompanying her.
Hebe – The goddess of youth, she is the daughter of Zeus and Hera. Hebe sometimes accompanied Aphrodite.
Horae – The Hours, they are the daughters of Zeus and Themis. Their names are Eunomia (“Good Order”), Dike (“Justice”), and Eirene (“Peace”).
In Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite,” the goddess is described as riding in a chariot that is pulled by sparrows.
Aphrodite isn’t just a Love Goddess, the sexual acts associated with her, Aphrodite’s attributes extend to the fertility of animals and vegetation, not just humans. In the story of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares, the version of the story found in the Iliad has Aphrodite returning to Cyprus so she can renew her virginity in Spring. Something she apparently does after each liaison. Some even suggest so far as to identify Aphrodite as a Mother Goddess as she gives birth to the crops each year. However, I think that domain is well and thoroughly covered with Demeter and Persephone. Though given the story of Aphrodite and Adonis, Mother Goddess and fertility still easily fits.
Pomegranates are thought to be associated with Aphrodite as the red seeds symbolized sexuality. An interesting side note, Greek women sometimes used pomegranates as a form of birth control.
Venus – When equating Aphrodite with the Roman goddess Venus, the poet Lucretius calls Aphrodite as a Genetrix for her creation and creative role in the world.
Plus, the aspects of Aphrodite as a fertility goddess really fit when under Roman influence and they have identified many of Aphrodite’s myths to their goddess and are busy tacking on Venus’ aspects to her Grecian counterpart.
This is the domain that Aphrodite is really known for, Love, all kinds of love. The many epitaphs that Aphrodite has denote which form of love she presides over.
Aphrodite Benetrix – Married Love
Aphrodite Porne – Erotic Love
Aphrodite Urania – Heavenly Aphrodite, Spiritual Love, the kind that is unconditional and all of creation.
That’s just a few of the names that cover the many types of love that Aphrodite presided over. In addition, Aphrodite had numerous sons, most notably Eros who would accompany her and who represented the different types of love.
Birth Of A Goddess
There are a couple different origin stories for Aphrodite.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born when Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus and the severed member was thrown into the ocean. As the ocean began to churn and foam, Aphrodite rose up out of the waves. With Zephyr’s help, this Wind God blew the young goddess towards the island of Cyprus where flowers sprang up from her footsteps as she stepped on land. There, Aphrodite was welcomed by the Charities. From there, Aphrodite was dressed and taken to Mount Olympus to be presented to the other gods.
Other variations have Aphrodite arriving at Cythera. Seafood is known as aphrodisiacs as they are seen related to Aphrodite’s birth from the sea.
It is for the places of Cyprus and Cythera, that Aphrodite is also known by the names of Kypris and Cytherea.
It has been pointed out that Hesiod’s Theogony is likely pulled from the Hittite epic “The Song of Kumarbi” where Kumarbi overthrows his father, Anu the sky god by biting off his genitals and thus becoming pregnant to give birth to Ishtar and Teshub.
Homer, in his Iliad, however, says that Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. A note here is that Dione’s name is possibly a feminine form to Dios and Dion, both alternative names for Zeus and that both Zeus and Dione had a cult center in Dodona. Hesiod names Dione an Oceanid in his Theogony.
Marriage To Hephaestus
Following the genealogy with Zeus, he feared that the other gods would fight each other over who would get to marry Aphrodite.
Figuring himself wise and clever, Zeus married Aphrodite off to Hephaestus, the Smithing god. Imagine Hephaestus’ surprise, him the least comely of the gods and disabled. Elated, Hephaestus put all his efforts and skills in smithing to create the most exquisite jewels that he could for his bride. He even made a girdle of finely wrought gold with magic woven into it for Aphrodite.
While Hephaestus was happy with his marriage, Aphrodite wasn’t too pleased with the arrangement. She would have greatly preferred someone far more attractive and like many of the gods, she does have her affairs and dalliances.
Strophion – This is what Hephaestus will have crafted for Aphrodite, translations into English will call it a girdle. As lovely as this magic girdle is, whenever Aphrodite wore it, no one was able to resist her charms and was already irresistible to many. It’s been commented that Hera sometimes borrowed Aphrodite’s magic strophion from time to time.
The other name I have come across for this girdle or belt is cestus, which in Rome, a cestus is a set of armored leather gloves worn by boxers. That could be a translation error though as Aphrodite’s strophion was called “keston himanta” or (kestos himas) and that might be the source of confusion.
A final bit to note, is that this style of strophia were also used in depictions for the Middle Eastern goddesses Astarte and Ishtar.
Folklore – Instead of Zeus handing Aphrodite off in marriage, it is Hera who does so. In this one, Hephaestus made a golden throne for his mother Hera. When Hera sat down on the throne, it trapped her, and Hephaestus refused to release her until Hera agreed to give Aphrodite to him in marriage. Pleased that his mother agreed to the marriage, Hephaestus then gods to make his bride to be some jewelry, including the strophion that is often translated to mean girdle.
There are a few versions of Aphrodite’s marriage and who Hephaestus is actually married to.
Iliad – Aphrodite is the unmarried consort to Ares. Hephaestus’ wife is Charis, one of the Charities.
Odyssey – Book Eight is where the blind singer Demodocus describes Aphrodite as the wife to Hephaestus when the story of Aphrodite and Ares’ Affair is related.
Theogony – Aphrodite is unmarried, Hephaestus’ wife is Aglaea, the youngest of the Charities.
Aphrodite & Pandora
From Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus tasks Aphrodite to create Pandora, as the first woman to punish mankind after Prometheus’ stealing fire and gifting it to humans. Aphrodite makes Pandora to be both physically beautiful and sexually attractive so men will fall for her and lead to opening the box by which to release evils upon the world. Aphrodite’s attendants of Peitho, the Charities and the Horae contribute by gifting Pandora with gold and jewelry to be even more attractive.
Love Affair With Adonis
This is perhaps the most famous of Aphrodite’s affairs with a mortal by the name of Adonis.
Accordiing to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Adonis is the son of Myrrha who was cursed by Aphrodite and turned into a Myrrh tree. Depending on the version of the story, either Myrrh’s father takes an axe to split open the tree or nine months later the tree burst, splitting open with Adonis being born.
Aphrodite found the infant and takes him down to the Underworld hidden in a chest to be entrusted into Persephone’s keeping. When Persephone discover a baby in the chest, she falls in love with the infant and takes care of him.
Later, Aphrodite returns to check in and discovers that Adonis has grown up to become remarkably handsome. By this time, Persephone is also rather attached to Adonis as well and what ensues is a custody battle of who gets Adonis.
Zeus took the matter into his own hands, in which he put the muse Calliope to arbitrate. She divided the year into three parts, saying that Adonis would spend one third with Aphrodite, another third with Persephone and the third part of the year as time to himself.
Having his own agency, Adonis comes to love Aphrodite more. It doesn’t help that Aphrodite cheated by wearing her magic girdle to cause Adonis to spend more time with her.
When it was time for him to go to the Underworld, Adonis refused. This angered Persephone so that she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis. This wild boar is actually Ares in a jealous rage. As Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms, he was either transformed into the anemone flower or wherever Adonis’ blood fell, a red anemone flower sprung up.
Another account says that in her search for Adonis, that Aphrodite’s feet became cut and pierced by thorns and that the blood from her feet is what turned into the Anemone flowers.
A slight variation holds that Aphrodite acted as a surrogate mother to Adonis.
Sometimes the boar is sent by Artemis in retaliation for Aphrodite killing Hippolytus. Other times, it’s Apollo who is the boar that kills Adonis. Or that Dionysus carried Adonis away.
Phoenician Connection – It has been commented that the story of Persephone and Adonis is nothing more than the Greeks adopting the Phoenician story of Ashtarte and Adon. In the Canaanite language, Adon means lord and the names of Adonis and Adon appear to have a very solid linguistic connection.
Sumerian Connection – Another connection is that of the story of Inanna and Dumuzid.
Vegetation God – Some accounts will say that Adonis wasn’t mortal, that he was a deity in his own right and that this myth explains his death and rebirth each year for Summer and Winter as Zeus stepped in at this point saying that Adonis must spend the summers with Aphrodite and the winters with Persephone in the Underworld.
With this connection in mind, it’s been noted that Adonis’ cult had underworld tones of life and rebirth. From this, Aphrodite became connected with the dead in Delphi.
Aphrodite & Dionysus
Aphrodite is known to have numerous affairs. Depending on the account read, depends on if, with this story if it is either Dionysus, Hermes, Adonis or even Zeus himself who Aphrodite comes to bear the son Priapus with.
Generally, Dionysus is given as the father of Priapus with Aphrodite. As the story goes, following the events of the Trojan War, Hera was angry with Aphrodite’s interference when all the other gods were forbidden to be there by Zeus.
While pregnant with Priapus, Hera applied a potion to Aphrodite’s stomach as the goddess was sleeping. This was to ensure the child would be born deformed and monstrous looking. When Aphrodite gave birth to Priapus, she was horrified by the sight of an infant with a large, permanently erect gentile, potbelly, and large tongue. Aphrodite left the infant out on a hillside to die of exposure. However, a huntsman found the infant and raised them.
Later, Priapus would discover his powers a deity and the ability to cause vegetation to grow.
Aphrodite & Hermes
First, a little bit of history. There was at one point, a male version of Aphrodite known as Aproditus. This is a male version of Aphrodite who was worshiped within the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. Aphroditus would be shown in art as having the dress and body of a woman while sporting a beard. He would be shown lifting up his dress to show his genitals, thought to be an apotropaic symbol or warding off evil. Eventually, Aphroditus’ popularity would fade away and the feminine form of Aphrodite would prevail.
Hermaphroditus – Also called Hermaphroditos. With so many gods having affairs with the fair and lovely Aphrodite, it isn’t too much of a surprise that she would also haven one with Hermes. The child that they had was a very handsome and beautiful boy of the name Hermaphroditus. A naiad by the name of Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphoditus and in a rare twist, she tried to rape him. When Hermaphroditus tries to fight off Salmacis, the naiad prays to the gods that they should become one. The gods answer, it’s not clear which one or ones answer and Salmacis and Hermaphroditus fuse into one intersex being. Horrified by what happened to him, Hermaphroditus called on his parents, Hermes and Aphrodite to curse the fountain so that others who entered it’s waters would have the same thing happen to them.
Traces of Aphroditus’ cult are found within Hermaphroditus’ story.
Love Affair With Ares
This story is told in the Odyssey, Book Eight by the blind singer Demodocus. This is also a story that probably began as a folk tale among the Greeks.
The Sun-god Helios had spotted the two gods, Ares and Aphrodite in a tryst in the halls of Hephaestus. Helios went to inform Hephaestus of his wife’s affair who then decided to try and catch the two in the act. Being the master smith and craftsman of the gods, Hephaestus created a finely woven and nearly invisible net to ensnare the two in. Waiting for the right moment, he succeeded in trapping both Ares and Aphrodite within the net.
Wanting to make sure the two were properly shamed and punished, Hephaestus called the other Olympian gods to come. All the goddesses declined to come, not wanting to be scandalized while all the gods did come and gawked. Some commenting to the beauty of Aphrodite and other stating they’d gladly trade places with Ares. In versions of the story, the gods agreed on Hephaestus’ right to be angry and in others, they didn’t care. In the end, when released, an embarrassed Ares returned to his home in Thrace and Aphrodite went to the city of Paphos on Cyprus where she would bathe in the sea to renew her virginity with the help of the Charities. It wouldn’t take Hephaestus long to forgive Aphrodite her affair as he missed her.
Elaborating on this story, a later addition, Ares had the youth Alectryon guarding the door to warn when Helios came by as he would no doubt inform Hephaestus of the affair. However, Alectryon fell asleep and Helios discovered the two’s affair. Ares, embarrassed and infuriated at being caught, turned Alectryon into a rooster and it’s that add-on to the story of Ares and Aphrodite’s affair that roosters always crow, announcing the rising of the sun in the morning.
Variation – A version of the story found in Homer’s Odyssey has Hephaestus refusing to release the lovers unless Zeus returned the bridal gifts. Zeus staunchly refused as he felt that Hephaestus shouldn’t have made the affair so public. Though in the Odyssey, Poseidon does agree to play Hephaestus’ price to release both Ares and Aphrodite.
From their affair, Ares and Aphrodite became the parents of several minor deities: Eros, Arethousa, Harmonia, Phobos, Deimos and Adrestia. Both Eros and Arethousa’s tended to have attributes more in align with Aphrodite. Adrestia tended to be more like her father Ares.
Aphrodite & Poseidon
It makes sense, that this story takes place right after Aphrodite’s affair with Ares. Poseidon fell in love with Aphrodite and there must have been a fling for there is one daughter, Rhode and a son, Herophilus who is attributed to Poseidon as being the father.
Aphrodite & Pygmalion
The myth of Pygmalion has its first mention in the third century B.C.E. by the Greek writer Philostephanus of Cyrene. The myth has a full accounting later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Pygmalion was a sculptor from the island of Cyprus who refused to marry any woman as he found them to all be immoral. Very well, Pygmalion sets about carving an ivory statue of Aphrodite that was so life-like that he fell in love with it.
So, in love with the statue, Pygmalion prayed to Aphrodite to bring the statue to live so he could marry it. Aphrodite heard the sculptor’s prayers and brought the statue to life, naming her Galatea. From their union, Galatea and Pygmalion had two children, Paphos, a son and from whom the capital of Cyprus would be named for, and a daughter Metharme as mentioned by Pseudo-Apollodorus.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
In this story, Aphrodite helped Hippomenes, a youth who desired to marry the maiden Atalanta. The catch was, Atalanta refused to marry any man unless they could beat her in a footrace, and she had the habit of beheading those who lost.
In comes Aphrodite give Hippomenes three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides with the instructions to toss them before Atalanta as they raced. Doing as instructed, Hippomenes tossed the apples down in Atalanta’s path. Each time Atalanta bent down to pick up another golden apple, it would give Hippomenes more of a lead, allowing him to win the race and thus marry Atalanta.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story continues. Because Hippomenes forgot to give thanks to Aphrodite after words, she causes the two to become so infatuated with each other while in the Temple of Cybele. The two desecrated Cybele’s temple by having sex in it and an angry Cybele turned Hippomenes and Atalanta into lions.
Sometimes it is Zeus who punishes the two mortals. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
As it is Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the mention of Cybele, there’s a clear Roman influence on the second part of the story.
Aphrodite & Typhon – Pisces
Typhon, a monstrous god, attacked the Gods when they were down by the Nile River. In some retellings of the story, the Gods where there in exile or that just happens to be where they were at for one of their many battles with Typhon. In either eventuality, Aphrodite and her son Eros were among the gods along the Nile River’s banks when Typhon appeared to do battle. While Zeus and a couple of other gods fought it out with Typhon, Aphrodite and Eros had leapt into the river, changing into a pair of fish so they could make their escape. In other accounts of the story, Aphrodite and Eros tied themselves together with a rope so they wouldn’t get separated.
Another account of this story places the riverbank that the gods were walking along as being the Euphrates River and not the Nile River. There is also a very similar story found in a Manilius’ five-volume poetic work Astronomica in which the fish that become the constellation of Pisces carried Aphrodite and Eros away to safety.
Keeping with the Euphrates River connection, when an egg fell into this river, a pair of fish pushed it to the shore where doves then sat on the egg to hatch it. When it hatched, Aphrodite came out of the egg. In a show of gratitude, the goddess placed the fish up into the sky to become the constellation Pisces. Through these connections of the myth, Pisces is also known as “Venus et Cupido,” “Venus Syria cum Cupidine,” Venus cum Adone,” “Dione,” and “Veneris Mater.”
Eros & Psyche
Psyche happened to be an extraordinarily beautiful princess. This brought about the anger and jealousy of Aphrodite when people turned their attention to Psyche and worshiped her. Aphrodite enlisted the aid of her son Eros to help punish Psyche.
The idea is that Eros would cause Psyche to fall in love with the worst and most vilest creature on the earth possible. Instead of doing as his mother bid, Eros fell in love with Psyche and took her home. He instructed Psyche that she was to never look upon his face.
All is well for awhile until Psyche goes home to visit family and her sisters convince her to break Eros’ command and look upon his face. Psyche does this and hurt, angry, Eros flies away leaving poor Psyche behind.
Psyche beseeches Aphrodite for help with finding her lost love. Knowing who it is that Psyche is looking for, Aphrodite sets out a series of nearly impossible tasks for Psyche to do. Eventually Eros discovers what’s happening and as he can’t bear to see Psyche’s suffering, returns. The two are married with all the gods attending.
This story is an early model for the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast.
A Goddess Scorned
Many of the Greek gods have a reputation for being very fickle. Just as often as they favor mortals, they can also punish them too.
By the stories, Aphrodite is no different and she could be very gracious with those mortals whom she favored. For those mortals who didn’t fawn upon Aphrodite the attention and worship she felt she was owed, Aphrodite could be very vindictive.
Aegialeia – The wife of Diomedes, she was cursed by Aphrodite after Diomedes had wounded the goddess during the Trojan War. Aegialia was cursed with promiscuity and she had several lovers, among them Hippolytus. Now it could be, that Aegialeia was angry with Diomedes as she heard rumors, he was returning home with a Trojan woman and this was to get back at an unfaithful husband. When Aegialeia threatened Diomedes’ life, he took off for Italy.
Clio – When the Muse derided Aphrodite’s love for Adonis, Aphrodite caused Clio to fall in love with Pierus of Magnesia and they had a son, Hyacinth.
Eos – Aphrodite cursed Eos, the goddess of the Dawn to be forever, perpetually in love with an insatiable sexual desire after Eos had slept with Ares, god of war. Guess no one else was allowed to have Aphrodite’s sweetheart.
Glaucus of Corinth – He angered Aphrodite when he refused to let his chariot horses mate, as to do so would slow their speed down. Aphrodite bided her time and when the Funeral Games for King Pelias happened, the goddess caused Glaucus’ horses to go mad and tear him apart during the chariot race.
Halia – She is a sea nymph who bore six sons with Poseidon. When Halia’s sons refused to let Aphrodite land on their shore, Aphrodite drove them all insane, causing them to rape their mother, Halia. Poseidon buried his six sons within the island’s sea caves.
Hippolytus – The son of Theseus, he worshipped only Artemis, the goddess of virginity and hunting. Because Hippolytus refused any sexual intercourse, this upset Aphrodite who saw him as being very prideful. As a result, Aphrodite caused Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother to fall in love with him. Understandably so, Hippolytus refuses Phaedra’s advances. Phaedra however, is so distraught that she kills herself but not before leaving a note for Theseus, telling him that she committed suicide because Hippolytus tried to rape her.
This upsets Theseus who prays to Poseidon to kill Hippolytus for his actions. Poseidon answers by sending a wild bull to scare Hippolytus’ horses and smash the chariot so that he falls to his death along a seaside cliff. In the end, Artemis finally gets wind of what happened and goes to seek her own revenge against Aphrodite, which in some stories, is sending a wild boar to kill Adonis.
Leucippus – The grandson of Bellerophon, it is never clear what caused Aphrodit’e anger in this story. Only that the goddess caused Leucippus to fall in love with his sister. The sister was already betrothed to another and the betrothed found out about the incestuous relationship that Leucippus and his sister were having, went to inform their father Xanthius. Father Xanthius shows up at his daughter’s bed chamber and discovers his son, Leucippus there. As it’s dark, a fight ensues where the daughter is killed trying to escape and Leucippus kills his father as he doesn’t recognize who it is at first. Once he realizes what happened, Leucippus leaves to go be part of the colonizing of Crete and Asia Minor.
Myrrha – I covered this myth earlier in the story of Adonis. Myrrha’s mother, Queen Cenchreis of Cyprus had bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite. In response, Aphrodite cursed Myrrha to fall in love with her father, King Cinyras who slept with her unknowingly. Eventually Myrrha turned into the myrrh tree and gave birth to Adonis.
It doesn’t end there, Aphrodite continued her wrath against Queen Cenchreis and King Cinyras’ other three daughters, Braesia, Laogora, Orsedice to sleep with some foreigners and they ended up dying in Egypt.
Narcissus – One account has Aphrodite cursing Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection after he refused to worship her.
Pasiphae – In one version, for the birth of the birth of the minotaur, Pasiphae had failed to make the appropriate offerings to Venus (Aphrodite), as a result, the goddess caused her to fall in love with the white bull meant as an offering to Zeus.
Alternatively, the curse comes because Pasiphae is the daughter of Helio and this is Aphrodite getting back at him for exposing her affair with Ares.
Polyphonte – Was a young woman and another devote to Artemis who chose a life of virginity instead of marriage and children. Aphrodite cursed Polyphonte to fall in love with a bear. Her resulting monstrous humanoid bear children, Agrius and Oreius who were cannibals. Zeus got involved this time and turned Polyphonte and her children into birds of ill omen; owls and a vulture.
Propoetides – He and his daughters were from the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. They had failed to worship Aphrodite appropriately and she caused them to become the first prostitutes. It should be noted that this is a story found in Ovid’ Metamorphoses.
Tanais – The son of Lysippe and Berossos, he was a devote to Ares, fully committed to war. This upset Aphrodite as Tanais neglected love and marriage. The goddess cursed Tanais to fall in love with his mother Lysippe. As he refused to give up his chastity, Tanais threw himself into the Amazonius river, which after words was renamed to the Tanais river.
The Women of Lemnos – Because these ladies refused to offer sacrifices to Aphrodite, she cursed all of them to have a horrible stench. We’re talking bad, to the point that their husbands refused to have sex with them. The husbands went and had sex with their Thracian slave-girls instead. This angered the Lemnos Women, and they murdered all the men and their slaves on their island. Later, when Jason and the Argonauts show up, these women are just starved for a man’s affections, that with Aphrodite’s approval, she allows for the Lemnos Women to have sex with Jason and his crew whereby they can repopulate the island. From there on out, the Lemnos Women never failed to appease Aphrodite.
The Judgement Of Paris
The gods were feasting at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who would become the parents of Achilles. All the gods were invited accept Eris who hadn’t received an invite. Chiron was in charge of the wedding invites and didn’t invite Eris due to her reputation for stirring up trouble. This understandably miffed Eris to no end. After all, everyone else got invited, why not her?
Coming off as seeking to be peaceful and no hard feelings, Eris proposed a beauty contest between the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. As the prize, Eris tossed a golden apple of beauty, or better known, the golden apple of discord. In some retellings, it is noted that the golden apple has engraved or written the word: “Kallisti,” meaning: “for the fairest.”
This dispute, one driven by vanity over who was the loveliest of the goddess would escalate and the hapless mortal Paris is called in to judge. Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe Paris to choose her. Hera offered political power, Athena offered battle prowess and Aphrodite tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.
Being a young mortal man, Paris chooses Helen and rewards Aphrodite with the golden apple. Only there is one problem, Helen is the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. In claiming and taking her, Paris sparks off the Trojan War. This causes Athena and Hera to side with the Greeks in the ensuing war.
Divine Set Up – If we go by the “lost” epic, The Cypria attributed to Stasinus, this whole Trojan War was planned on by Zeus and Themis. There’s only about 50 lines of text from the Cypria and its seen as a prequel to Homer’s the Iliad and explains how the events came about.
Some scholars look at Aphrodite’s connection to Mesopotamia with the War Goddess Ishtar as an explanation for the start of the Trojan War, saying that Aphrodite instigated it by manipulating Paris with a promise to marry Helen.
Aphrodite has a prominent and active role in Homer’s Iliad. In Book III, Aphrodite rescues Paris from Menelaus after a one-on-one duel to settle the matter. Aphrodite also appears to Helen in the form of an old woman, trying to persuade her to have sex with Paris. However, Helen recognizes Aphrodite by her eyes, neck, and breasts. Helen entreats with Aphrodite as an equal and the goddess rebukes Helen, threatening her. Not wanting a god’s wrath, Helen obeys Aphrodite’s command to lay with Paris.
In Book XIV of the Iliad, Aphrodite loans her kestos himas or magic girdle to Hera so she can seduce Zeus as he had forbidden the other gods to stay involved in the Trojan War at this point. While Zeus is distracted by Hera’s advances, Poseidon is aiding the Greek forces to be able to take the beach to invade Troy. Then in Book XXI, Aphrodite returns to the war to carry Ares away off the field of battle after he’s been wounded.
Anchises – He was a shepherd prince who lived on Mount Ida, whom Aphrodite fell in love with after Zeus convinced Eros to hit her with one of his arrows. After all, with Aphrodite being the goddess of love, it’s her fault that Zeus has so many affairs and is constantly on the outs with Hera.
Aphrodite pretended to be a mortal woman in order to marry Anchises. When Anchises saw Aphrodite, he asked if she was said goddess, saying he would build her an alter if she would only bless him and his family. Aphrodite lied, saying she was a princess from Phrygia. She explains how she came to understand the Trojan language due to a Trojan nursemaid as a child. How she had been snatched away by Hermes while dancing for a celebration to honor Artemis. The disguised goddess tells Anchises to take her to his parents.
From there, the two are married or Anchises so overcome with lust, couples with the goddess-princess. After their union does Aphrodite reveal who she really is, saying she will bare Aenease a son who will become the demigod Aeneas. As Anchises didn’t keep quiet about who the mother of his son was, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt and either blinds or kills him outright.
There are a couple of slight versions to this story such as Aphrodite allowed for Anchises to be able to flee the city of Troy.
Aeneas – Trojan Hero and son of Aphrodite with Anchises. In book V of Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite rescues her son from Diomedes in battle. Diomedes, recognizing Aphrodite and viewing her as a weak goddess, spears her, nicking her wrist. When Aphrodite rides back to Mount Olympus in Ares’ borrowed chariot, Zeus tells the goddess that her specialty is love, not war as he mocks her for getting hurt.
Aeneas features in Virgil’s Aeneid to be Rome’s first hero and an ancestor to Romulus and Remus.
Note: It has been commented that the scene of Aphrodite and Zeus has similarities in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Ishtar laments to her mother Antu after Gilgamesh rejects her advances and is in turn, rebuked by her father Anu.
With Aphrodite’s birth and arrival from the ocean, some people have worshiped Aphrodite as a sea goddess. Several types of waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans would become associated with Aphrodite. Naturally, seashells are associated with Aphrodite. Sea food is considered an aphrodisiac due to this lovely goddess’ connection to the briny deeps.
As a sea goddess, Aphrodite protects those who travel the seas. This earned her the epitaphs of Aphrodite Pontia or Aphrodite of the Deep Sea and Aphrodite Euploia or Aphrodite of the Fair Voyage. The planet Venus that Aphrodite is associated with, served as navigational aid for ancient mariners as they plied the seas.
With the previously mentioned Mesopotamian connection to the goddesses of Astarte and Ishtar, Aphrodite may have arrived first as a goddess of War in ancient Greece. She was honored as such in Cyprus, Laconia, Sparta, and Thebes to name a few places. In Sparta, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), showing her connection to the god Ares.
Eventually, the war aspects of Aphrodite would be dropped, and the role left to Athena and Ares.
Early Christianity readily adapted many pagan symbols and icons to their religion. With Aphrodite/Venus, her symbolisms were given to Eve, prostitutes, and some female saints such as the Virgin Mary.
The story of Aphrodite’s birth became a metaphor for baptism. There is a Coptic stele dating from the sixth century C.E. where a female orant is wearing Aphrodite’s conch shell to show she has been recently baptized. Throughout the Middle Ages, folktales regarding Aphrodite/Venus remained popular.
In the fifth century C.E. North Africa, Fulgentius of Ruspe found mosaics of Aphrodite that he proceeded to interpret as a symbol for the sin of Lust, how Aphrodite’s nudeness meant that “the sin of lust is never cloaked” and that her swimming represented how all lust suffers a “shipwreck”. Fulgentius even argued how the symbols of doves and conch shells were symbols of copulation and that the symbol of roses represented the fleetingness of lust, that it has momentary pleasures that are soon gone.
Then we have Isidore of Seville who interpreted Aphrodite as a symbol of marital procreative sex, declaring how the story of Aprodite’s birth represents that sex can only be holy with the presence of semen, blood and heat for the purposes of procreation. Isidore also held that Eros/Cupid is a demon of fornication.
Venusberg – Dating from the Late Middle Ages, the Venusberg mythology would become popular in European folklore. The “Mountain of Venus” is a subterranean realm ruled by Venus and a folktale archetype for visiting the Otherworld. The most familiar appearance of Venusberg is in the German Tannhäuser legend in the 16th century.
Variations to this myth are the mortal lover being carried away to the realm of faerie by a fairy queen. Popular legends include Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin.
Modern Paganism & Wicca
In modern Paganism such as the Church of Aphrodite, Hellenismos, and Wicca, either Aphrodite or her Roman counterpart, Venus are goddess often invoked for casting love spells and love rituals. Aphrodite is often used in charms for making aphrodisiacs, philters, and love potions.
Astarte – Canaanite & Phoenician Goddess
A goddess of love and war worshiped in the Middle East during the Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity. Astarte was identified by the Hebrews as Ashtoreth.
Hathor – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian Cow Goddess Hathor is frequently identified with Aphrodite.
It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks and Romans to equate many of their deities with those of other cultures. The Romans especially did it with any gods whose people they conquered. In the case of Egypt and their gods, Hathor in her role as a goddess of love and beauty is synonymous with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus.
Inanna – Mesopotamian Goddess
Also known as Ishtar, she is the goddess of love, war and sexuality. She is known as the Queen of Heaven.
Isis – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian goddess of the moon, healing, magic and life who protected women and children. During the Hellenistic Grecian era, she was equated with Aphrodite.
Turan – Etruscan Goddess
The Etruscan goddess of beauty, love, and fertility. She was the patron goddess of the city Velch. She has been identified with the Roman Venus and Grecian Aphrodite.
Venus – Roman Goddess
As the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite is often confused with or identified with the Roman deity of Venus, also a Goddess of Love. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Venus with Aphrodite. While both deities are Goddesses of Love, there are differences in the Roman myths and the Greek myths.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that they would virtually become one and the same. And that’s the tradition passed down through the centuries and has become accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Just as Aphrodite is often accompanied by her son Eros, so too is Venus accompanied by her son Cupid.
The Father Of Gods & Heroes
Some of Zeus’ “romantic conquests” are also how many of Greece’s heroes are born, giving them some divine might and heroic destiny for their exploits. It is very likely that many of these stories are just wish fulfillment to connect early Greeks to the gods and explain why many early heroes appear to have divine destinies and beyond human attributes.
As the Father and King of the Gods, even those deities not directly related to Zeus as his children would likely refer him to Father.
A good number of the myths and stories of the Greek gods and heroes tend to place Zeus having some prominence, even if it’s as a cameo appearance.
I will admit that many of the myths about the Olympians I grew up with only ever mention Hera as Zeus’ wife. Then throwing in all of the numerous “affairs” of Zeus as just his many flings by whom the different gods and heroes of Greek mythology are born.
Clean, sanitized versions of the myths. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article series, there are at least three main sources for Zeus’ origins and myths. A couple of sources mentioned give Metis as Zeus’ first wife and that Hera is the second wife. So maybe Hera’s jealousy is not wanting to get replaced? Or just the rewrites that come later that say Hera has to be jealous of Zeus’ affairs.
I did come across one source that gives several wives for Zeus, starting with Metis, then the titaness Themis, Eurynome, Demeter, Mnemosyne, Leto, and lastly Hera.
Zeus & Callisto
This poor nymph found herself transformed into a bear along with her son Arcas by Artemis after an affair with Zeus. In compensation, Zeus placed both Callisto and Arcas up into the heavens to become the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Zeus & Danae
Zeus & Europa
In Greek mythology, Zeus in many of his various affairs; had fallen love with Europa, the daughter of Agenor, a King of Tyre in ancient Phoenicia. The problem with Zeus getting close to show his affection is that Europa was always guarded by her father’s servants. Being a god and a shape-shifter, Zeus changed himself into the form of a handsome white bull with golden horns.
That accomplished, Zeus in his white bull form then mingles with the King’s royal herds grazing in a large field near the sea. While a walk along the beach, Europe noticed the handsome white bull and couldn’t resist going up to feed it. The bull was so very friendly and gentle, that Europe climbed up on its back when it lay down; taking hold of the golden horns.
Once she was on the bull’s back, it stood up and the white bull wandered closer and closer to the sea and then when they approached the beach, took off running for the water. Once in the sea, the bull starts swimming towards the island of Crete. And for Europa, it was too late to get off now.
When they arrived in Crete, Zeus changed back into his own form, revealing himself to Europa. As he’s already married to Hera, Zeus gives Europa instead in marriage to Asterius, the King of Crete.
In slightly different versions of this story, Zeus and Europa have three children together. One of whom is Minos who grows up and goes on to be a famous king of Crete. He had the palace in Knossos built where bull games were held and is more infamous for the sacrifice of fourteen youths (seven boys and seven girls) to his Minotaur in a labyrinth every year. In either event, Zeus is said to have commemorated the white bull he turned into by placing it up among the heavens as the constellation Taurus.
Zeus & Leda
This story is connected to the Cygnus constellation. In this story, Zeus disguised 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 & 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 clearer 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.
Zeus & Leto
Another of Zeus’ affairs is with Leto and the resultant children would be the twin deities Apollo and Artemis.
From the surviving stories we have, a jealous Hera forced Leto to roam the earth to safely give birth. Hera had commanded that the earth and sea refuse Leto any safe refuge. Eventually, Leto came to the floating island of Delos and was able to safely give birth to her twin children.
Zeus & Ganymede
This is an oddball myth in that Zeus falls in love with a particularly handsome youth, Ganymede while he is out watching his father’s sheep. Zeus either transforms into or sends an eagle to come carry the youth off to Mount Olympus. There, Zeus grants Ganymede immortality and makes him a cup-bearer to the gods, replacing Hebe after she spilled some of the nectar and causing Hera a lot of anger over the replacement.
Depending on how you interpret this myth, this is Zeus wanting to grant immortality to a worthy descendant of his or how the ancient Greeks were justifying homosexuality in their culture.
Zeus & Semele
In this myth, Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia is “seduced” by Zeus. The mighty Zeus promised the young Semele to reveal himself in all of his godly glory, however she dies when Zeus reveals himself as thunder and lightning to her. Their union results in the birth of the young Dionysus.
Herakles – The Favored Son
Of all of the many children that Zeus is to have sired, Herakles (or Hercules for the Roman spelling) is the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Even though, Herakles’ name means: “Glory of Hera,” Hera was not too pleased with the birth of this demigod and tried to kill him. Herakles would go on to become one of the best well known heroes in Greek & Roman mythology.
One such adventure between father and son is when they team up against a tribe of earth-born Giants threatening Olympus. The Delphi Oracle had decreed that only a single god and mortal would be able to defeat these monsters. Zeus and Hercules proved their mettle and overcame the monsters, defeating them.
Truth, Justice And The Olympian Way!
As King of the gods and their ruler, Zeus is the one who also gets to determine and uphold the laws, mete out justice, mercy, and morals. He punishes oath breakers and liars by hurling bolts of lightning to strike them down! It is Zeus’ place to maintain these laws, both in the heavens and on the earth, to protect his worshipers, preside over the various festivals and handle the governing of prophecies.
Given how often the gods, as a whole, are said to be petty and Zeus’ reputation for his numerous affairs (*coughs* rapes), I’m not sure I really buy this?
Hesiod in his “Work and Days” does describe Zeus as being a carefree god who loves to laugh aloud. Zeus was known for being wise, fair, just, merciful, and prudent despite supposedly having an unpredictable nature as no one knew what decrees he would give. A lord of justice who brought peace instead of violence.
Now we do have in the story of Ixion, what happens when someone violates the Host-Guest laws and proves to be a bad guest. Zeus comes through with laying down the law there.
Protector of Kings – Zeus was known to be a protector, particularly of kings and rulers. Once Greece shifted away from Kings and more towards democracy, Zeus then becomes the chief judge and peace maker.
Morals – For all of his affairs, if Zeus is to be setting the example for morals, it is small wonder that Hera comes across as angry and jealous all the time. Someone needs to keep him in line.
The show “Hercules: The Legendary Journey” is the only series that comes to mind that tried any meaningful reconciliation between Zeus and Hera about his numerous affairs. It was a very cheap shot with having Hera get amnesia as it didn’t really resolve the issues. Just lazy writing on the part of the screen writers. Most other shows and movies tend to gloss over the moral and marital problems as that usually is not the focus of the story at hand that writers want to tackle and tell.
I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line, people twisted this view of justice and started recreating Zeus in their image. After all, people are mortal, and they’ll end up following after deities that appeal to their natures and what they want.
A Partial List Of Zeus’ Many Judgments & Punishments
I’m bound to miss a few, the stories involving Zeus are many, even if we’re counting the ones where he has a small bit part or cameo.
- At Hades’ request, Asclepius was killed by thunderbolt after his medical knowledge enabled the dead to return to life.
- Forcing Atlas to hold up the world on his shoulders after his part in the Titanomachy.
- Turning the nymph Chelone into a tortoise after she refused to attend the marriage of Hera and Zeus.
- Turning both King Haemus and Queen Rhodope into mountains. Your mileage may vary depending on if these are the Balkan Mountains, Stara Planina or Rhodope mountains, all for the crime of being too vain.
- Punishing Hera by hanging her upside down from the sky after she attempted to drown Heracles in a storm. His own wife.
- Throwing Hephaestus off the top of Mount Olympus as the baby was too repulsive looking.
- Lycaon was turned into a wolf after daring to serve Zeus human flesh to eat.
- Turning Pandareus to stone after he stole the golden dog that had guarded him as an infant in the holy Dictaeon Cave of Crete.
- Pandora was given a box, that when opened cursed mankind with all the evils and diseases after Prometheus gave humans the gift of fire.
- Turning Periphas into an eagle, thus making him the king of birds after Apollo intervened and said not to kill him.
- Blinding the seer Phineus and sending the harpies to harass him after revealing divine secrets. In some cases, for blinding his own sons.
- Killing Salmoneus with a thunderbolt for attempting to impersonate him, riding around in a bronze chariot and loudly imitating thunder.
- Sisyphus was condemned to spend all of eternity in the Underworld to roll a stone up hill.
- Condemning Tantalus to eternal torture in the depths of Tartarus after he tried to trick the gods into eating the flesh of his son Pelops.
- Sinking the Telchines into the sea.
Callirrhoe – Not everything was divine retribution… Zeus does grant Callirrhoe’s prayer that her sons be able to grow up swiftly so they can get revenge on Phegeus and his two sons for the death of their father.
Ixion – One really sees Zeus’ role as a god of justice and distributer of divine justice in the story of Ixion. How Ixion committed murder after refusing to pay a bride price. Ixion went everywhere he could think of to be purified and absolved of this grievous sin. Eventually Zeus said he could purify Ixion and then invited the mortal up to Mount Olympus.
While there, Ixion tried putting some moves on Hera who complained to her husband, Zeus. In response, Zeus created a cloud named Nephele in Hera’s likeness. When Zeus caught Ixion trying to put some unwanted moves on Nephele, Zeus sentenced Ixion down to Tartarus to spin forever on a flaming wheel crying out how you should always show gratitude to your benefactor.
The Myrmidons – After the death of his son, King Aeacus, Zeus turned the Myrmidons into ants. Later, Achilles would lead them into battle during the Trojan War.
Porphyrion – Ixion wasn’t the only one to get punished by Zeus for daring to look at his wife. The giant Porphyrion was struck down by lightning bolt after lusting for Hera.
Prometheus – This is another of the more famous of those punished by Zeus. In sum, the titan Prometheus had gifted humankind with fire. Not just fire, but divine fire after all the other animals received their gifts. Prometheus’ punishment is to be chained to a rock for all eternity while every day a vulture comes and eats his liver.
Most of the stories don’t mention that there was also a woman, by the name of Thetis whose identify that Prometheus was keeping from Zeus. That age-old prophecy plaguing Zeus that a son of his would be born greater than him who would overthrow the mighty Zeus and take his throne. After torturing Prometheus for a while, the titan tells Zeus that if he pursues Thetis, she will bear him the aforementioned, prophesied son. Hearing the news, Zeus decides to pass off Thetis to Peleus and it is from that union, that the hero Achilles is born.
Etymology: Greek – dios “bright”
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Ζευς, Kronion
Epithets: Zeus has some 150 epitaphs that he is known by. I expect to miss a few, if not several. Here are some of his many names and epitaphs.
Zeus-Amphitryon (Zeus in the form of Amphitryon when he seduced Alcmene), Zeus Areius (“War-Like” or “The Atoning One”), Abrettenus or Abretanus (Zeus’ surname in Mysia), Achad (Syrian name), Adad (Syrian name), Zeus Adados, Adultus (Invoked as a name of Zeus in marriage), Zeus Agamemnon, Zeus Amphiaraus, Apemius (Averter of Ills), Apomyius (Dispeller of Flies), Acraeus (name in Smyrna ), Acrettenus (name in Mysia), Zeus Areius, Brontios (“Thunderer”), “Ceneus” – An epithet of Zeus after the temple on Cape Canaeum of Euboea. “Kosmetas” (Orderer), “Soter” (Savior), “Polieus” (Overseer of the City) and “Eleutherios” (guarantor of political freedoms), “The Lord of Justice,” “Father of Gods and Men,” “Nephelegereta” (Cloud-Gatherer), Zeus Helioupolites (“Heliopolite” or “Heliopolitan Zeus”), Zeus Olympios, Zeus Panhellenios (“Zeus of all the Hellenes”), Zeus Xenios (“Zeus of Hospitality, Strangers & Foriegners”), Zeus Herkios (“God of Courtyards”), Zeus Herkeios (Guardian of the House), Zeus Hikesios (“God of those seeking sanctuary”), Zeus Larisaeus, Philoxenon or Hospites, Zeus Horkios and Zeus Pistios (“Keeper of Oaths’), Zeus Hypsistos (“Supreme God”), Zeus Agoraeus (“Presider over Businesses”), Zeus Aegiduchos or Aegiochos (“Bearer of the Aegis”), Zeus Nikephoros (“Zeus holding Nike”), Zeus Tallaios (“Solar Zeus”), Zeus Ktesios (“Protector of Property”), Zeus Labrandos, Zeus Trephonius (“the nurturing”), Zeus Naos and Bouleus, Zeus Georgos (“Earth Worker” or “Farmer”), Kasios (“Zeus of Mount Kasios”), Ithomatas, Astrapios (“Lightninger”), Diktaios, Bottiaeus, Zeus Velchanos (“Boy-Zeus”), Kouros (Boy Zeus and early Cretan fertility god), Zeus Lykaios (Wolf Zeus), Zeus Katachthonios (Zeus of the Underworld), Eubouleus, Zeus Meilichios (“Zeus the Easily-Entreated”or Zeus as a snake), Zeus Maimaktes (the bloody aspect of Zeus Meilichios), Zeus Chthonios (“earth”), Zeus Plousios (“wealth-brining”) and Zan (Zeus’ name in Crete).
Zeus, mighty Zeus. King and “All-Father” of the Gods in Greek mythology. He is the mighty thunderer who rules from his abode on Mount Olympus. As King of the Gods, Zeus’ decrees dispense law, order, and justice throughout the mortal and divine realms. If you believe the myths, Zeus is also highly respected(?) in having fathered many of the gods and demigods alike. Exactly how he fathers them all is another matter, of which, his wife Hera is often not too pleased.
Universal Problems Require Universal Solutions
While researching the mythology for Zeus, it can get very problematic. There are at least three different major mythos for Zeus. Two Arcadian versions of his legend and the Hellenistic Zeus that so many are familiar with. Other versions are Zeus found at the Dodona oracle.
As more Greek writers and even modern retellers try to create an all-encompassing myth for all of Greece, it can often get contradictory as to which versions of the myths are correct. Hesiod’s Theogony is a big contributor to the version of the myths that most are familiar with.
Further, for all that the Greeks saw Zeus as the head of their Pantheon, he can often lose a lot of emphasis and power as too often, as the myths try to show his importance, Zeus just ends up having a cameo appearance or mention in the stories. The king who sits up on high passing out judgements.
Add in too, the numerous affairs that Zeus is to have had. Depending on the era of myths, this is Greek influence spreading and trying more to have Zeus as the progenitor for many deities and demigod heroes. If people are creating the gods in their image to reflect them, what does it say for a culture where a god gets to have his way with every female he desires and lusts after? The euphemism of ravish is used a lot for many of Zeus’ “romantic” pursuits. How much is Zeus a victim of his own reputation or not, can be hard to say.
Animal: Bull, Dove, Cuckoo, Golden Eagle, Lion, Quail, Rooster, Swan, Wolf, Woodpecker
Patron of: Kings, People, Fate
Plant: Oak, Olive Tree
Sphere of Influence: Law, Order, Justice, Weather, Rain, Sky
Symbols: Aegis, Cornucopia, Courage, Lightning, Scepter, Sky, Strength, Thunderbolt
Early Greek Depictions
In art, Zeus is often shown as a middle-aged looking male with a long beard and hair and youthful, athletic figure, sporting a toga as he wields his lightning bolts. Sometimes Zeus is shown wielding a hammer. In Greek statuary, Zeus can be shown either standing or sitting with a lightning bolt or scepter in his hand. Zeus is sometimes shown wearing a crown of oak leaves. As King of the gods, Zeus is often seen as being very regal and imposing in this role.
Cult & Worship
Being the head god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus had several temples and festivals held in his honor. Zeus has what’s known as Panhellenic cults, centers of worship that are found spread throughout all of Greece.
Olympia – This is the biggest and major center of worship for Zeus. Located at Thessaly, Thessalia, the Olympic Games would be held here. An alter made of ash dedicated to Zeus is found here. Centuries of animal sacrifice remains can be found here. Such sacrifices were a white animal.
Olympic Games – These games were held every four years in honor of Zeus.
Nemean Games – Similar to the Olympic Games, only held every two years.
Theogamia – Or Gamelia, a festival celebrating Zeus and Hera’s marriage in Athens.
The Divine Youth – The island of Crete was unanimously recognized by the Greeks as being the birthplace of Zeus. Crete of course, was the center of the Minoan culture and civilization at one point. In Crete, the “Boy-Zeus” or Zeus Velchanos is a strong part of a Great Mother and Divine Child or Son and Consort mythos and religion. Zeus Velchanos would also be known as Kouros or Megas Kouros, “the Great Youth.”
On the island of Crete, Zeus is shown in art as a young, long-haired boy rather than the mature adult many statues depict. Ivory statues of the “Divine Boy” have been found near the Labyrinth of Knossos.
There’s even coinage that will show Zeus as a young boy sitting in a tree with a rooster or cockerel. Other coinage will show an eagle and a goddess in a sacred marriage. Inscriptions found at Gortyn and Lyttos show that a Velchania festival was still widely celebrated even during Hellenistic times.
There are several caves at Knossos, Ida and Palaikstro where Zeus was worshiped at. During the Hellenistic era, there was a small sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Velchanos at the Hagia Triada in the ruins of the Minoan palace. Looking at the stories of Minos and Epimenides, there is suggestion that these caves used as incubatory divination by kings and priests. Plato’s dialogue for Laws uses the pilgrimage route of these caves for its setting.
There was a secret rite held at the Cretan paideia. Zeus was said to preside over this military training and athletics. The participants were known as Kouretes, a group of armed dancers.
There is also a death or end-of-year fertility spirit where Zeus as Velchanos’ death is revered. The stories related to this myth are found in several mountain site where a fire would be lit annually at Zeus’ birth cave. Bees are also somehow connected to this observance.
There’s speculation, some holding that Zeus may have been a Cretan King that became deified after his death.
Lykaia – Under the name Zeus Lykaios or Wolf Zeus, Zeus is connected to the festival of Lykaia near Mount Lykaion in Arcadia.
The festival of Lykaia had a secret festival held on Mount Lykaion (Wolf Mountain) in Arcadia and it’s tallest peak. The myths that surround this ritual are believed to relate the story of Lycaon’s feast he held for the gods and involved having served up one of his sons Nyctimus as one of the main courses. Another version of this story given by an Eratosthenes, holds that Lycaon had served up his grandson Arcas at this feast. In either eventuality, an enraged Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf and proceeds to kill by means of lightning; Lycaon’s other sons before restoring the dead child back to life.
Mmm…. Cannibalism. Not.
The festival of Lykaia were held annually at the beginning of May. It was a primitive ritual festival and rite of passage for young males known as epheboi among the Greeks into adulthood. With the ritual held at night, evidence taken by some with the name of Lycaon’s son Nyctimus, a lot of rumors about cannibalism and werewolf transformations circulated widely among the Greeks as to just what was going on up there. Even Plato wrote about one clan who would gather every nine years and sacrifice to Zeus Lykaios where a piece of human flesh would be mixed in among the pieces of animal.
The belief held that whoever ate the human flesh would turn into a wolf and they could only return to human form after nine-years if they hadn’t eaten human flesh. The famous Olympic boxing champion, Damarchus is said to have turned into a wolf during the ritual sacrifice held for Zeus Lykaios. Games were also a big part of the Lykaios festival held every year after the secret ritual held at night.
It has been put forth, that the epitaphs of Lykaios and Lykeios likely originate in a Proto-Greek word *λύκη, meaning “light.” It’s a word still seen in other Greek words for “twilight” and “year.” This connection is seen in the tragedy writer Achaeus referring to Zeus Lykaios as being “starry eyed.”
This Arcadian Zeus connects strongly to Zeus being the son of Aether. It more easily makes a connection of Lykosoura being the “first city that the sun beheld” as described by Pausanias. The other connection is the alter to Zeus on the summit of Mount Lykaion standing between two columns with eagles that faced the sun-rise.” This all connects Zeus as a god of light.
Eleusinian Mysteries & Orphic Mysteries – Zeus gets around, a lot. Not much is known about the Eleusinian Mysteries and there is plenty known about the Orphic Mysteries given the amount of literature and hymns that have been found and translated.
Both the Eleusinian Mysteries and Orphic Mysteries concern themselves with the death & rebirth of a deity. A role often given to Hades and Dionysus in order to connect them to the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone. As Zeus Katachthonios or Eubouleus (a youthful version of the Lord of the Underworld), Zeus finds himself venerated in many local customs that honor the Underworld Lord and the symbolic rebirth at Spring.
It varies greatly as the local customs varied from one Greek city to another. The Athenians and Siclians honored a chthonic Zeus as Zeus Meilichios (“kindly” or “honeyed”). More epitaphs of Zeus claiming a chthonic role are Zeus Chthonios (“earth”), Zeus Katachthonios (“under-the-earth”) and Zeus Plousios (“wealth-brining”). These versions of Zeus would be depicted as snakes or in a more humanoid form. Sacrifices to the chthonic form of Zeus would be offerings of black animals in sunken pits. Some places, such the Lebadaea shrine in Boeotia, a local hero, Trophonius was revered and then attached as an epitaph to Zeus as Zeus Trephonius (“the nurturing”). Another hero, Amphiaraus was honored as Zeus Amphiaraus near Thebes and the Spartans honored a shrine to Zeus Agamemnon.
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.
Aetnaea – A local festival near Mount Aetna. A statue of Zeus is found here where he is worshiped as Zeus Aetnaeus.
Really getting around as the All-Father and God of Everything.
Temples And Sacred Sites
Cave of Zeus – Found on the slopes of Mount Ida on the island of Crete, the Cave of Zeus is a sacred place dating to antiquity. Sometimes the location of this Cave is given as the Psychro Cave on Crete or the Cave of Zeus is found on the Aegean island of Naxos.
It is the cave that the infant Zeus was hidden in from his father, the titan Cronos. Some variations of Zeus’ origins will place this as his birthing place. A band of mythical warriors known as the Kouretes would dance wildly and loudly as a means to drown out the infant’s cries to keep Cronus from discovering his son.
Archeology discoveries of the cave have found a number of votive offerings in this place.
Dodona Oracle – The site of Zeus’ most famous and oldest oracle, found at Dodona in Epirus, Northwestern Greece. It was known as a land of Oak trees and likely why the tree is associated with Zeus. At this site, Zeus was known as Zeus Naos and Zeus Bouleus. Zeus’ priests were known as Selloi and barefoot. They would lay on the ground and observe the rustling of leaves and branches for their divinations. It is thought that their name contributed to the Hellenes. Later, female priests replaced the male priests and were called Peleiades or Doves. Here, Zeus’ consort is reputed to be Dione, not Hera. Dione is a titaness who may have predated the Hellenic era and likely the original goddess worshipped. Her name is a female form of Zeus’ own name.
Siwa Oracle – The oracle of Ammon near the Siwa Oasis in the western Egyptian desert. Herodotus writes of a Zeus Ammon whould be be consulted at this oracle. This version of Zeus favored the Spartans and a temple dedicated to him was already built during the Peloponnesian War. After Alexander’s trek to this oracle, this figure became the Libyan Sibyl.
Temple of Zeus – This is the most famous of Zeus’ temples in Olympia. It features a gold and ivory statue of Zeus seated on a throne. This statue was sculpted by Phidias and was regarded as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.”
Mount Aenos – Located on the island of Cephalonia, Zeus was worshiped as either Zeus Aeneius or Zeus Aenesius.
Mount Olympus – This is the tallest mountain peak in Greece, Thessaly, Thessalia to be more precise. It is place from which Zeus and all of the gods are to have resided at, looking down on their domains below.
Shrines – There are several smaller shrines where it’s not always clear if it was dedicated to Zeus or to a local hero that had become defied. Some shrines were Lebadaea in Boeotia that might have belonged to Trophonius or Zeus Trephonius. Just outside of Thebes was Oropus was the shrine dedicated to Amphiaraus or Zeus Amphiaraus. There was a shrine to Zeus Agamemnon revered by the Spartans. At Tralles, there was a shrine dedicated to Zeus Larisaeus.
What’s In A Name?
Proto-Types – It has been put forward that Zeus’ name likely derives from a Proto-Indo-European god of the sky known as Dyeus phter or “Sky Father.” With this name, he is linked to the Rigveda Dyaus or Dyaus Pita. While there is a lot of speculation and hypothesizes about the Proto-Indian-European people, what their language was, culture and myths, Zeus is one whose name clearly comes from the Indo-European language that etymologists have tried to reconstruct. Another root word is “dyeu-“meaning to “to shine” or “bright.” The word is noted to have a similar meaning to the Latin word dies for “day.”
The Proto-Indo-Europeans aren’t really well known as they’re largely a hypothetical group as scholars try to track and guess which directions early humans migrated as they spread over Europe, the Middle East and Asia, which ideas and words stayed the same, ect.
With Mycenaean Greek as seen in the Linear B script, we have the words di-we and di-wo that very similar to the word dyeus.
In Plato’s Cratylus he gives the folk meaning for Zeus’ name as “cause of life always to all things.” It’s based on a pun with Zeus and Dia with Greek words for life and the phrase “because of.” As a result, persisting with this connection as correct isn’t supported with modern scholars.
Parentage and Family
Ouranos (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth)
Depending on the source, Zeus can have a few different origins.
Cronus and Rhea – The often recognized version of Zeus’ parentage, especially when referencing Hesiod’s Theogony as the source.
Father – Aether (Arcadian origin)
Father – Coelus (Arcadian origin)
Father – Saturnus (Cretan origin)
Hera – Also his sister, who becomes Queen of the Gods.
Dione – In the Iliad, at the Oracle of Dodona, Dione is his consort.
Metis – In some myths, Zeus is married to this Titaness before swallowing her.
This list is more the willing consorts and lovers, not those who were raped, no matter what euphemisms are used.
He is the sixth child born of Cronus and Rhea.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
A lot. Suffice to say, there are a lot of children that Zeus has fathered. As time went on and the Greek myths get rewritten and added to, there are even more children added to the roster of Zeus’ progeny. Either the god is really busy, or everyone wants to claim divinity and Zeus as their daddy!
With Aega, Zeus is the father of Aegipan or Goat-Pan. Not Pan, a different Pan.
With Alcmene, Zeus is the father of the famous Greek demi-god and hero Heracles.
With Callisto, Zeus fathers Arcas.
With Danae, Zeus is the father of Perseus.
With Dione, at the Oracle of Dodona, in the Iliad, Zeus fathers Aphrodite.
With Electra, Zeus fathers Iasion.
With Europa, Zeus fathers Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon.
With Eurynome, Zeus fathers the Charites or Graces.
With Io, Zeus is the father of Epaphos.
With Leda, Zeus fathered two sets of twins: Castor and Polydeuces and Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy.
With Leto, Zeus fathers the twin gods Apollo and Artemis.
With Maia, Zeus is said to be the father of Hermes.
With Metis, Zeus is the father of Athena.
With Mnemosyne (Memory), Zeus fathers nine daughters, the Muses over a period of nine nights.
With Semele, Zeus fathers Dionysus in some versions of the myths.
With Themis, goddess of Justice, Zeus fathers the three Horae, goddesses of the seasons and the three Moirai or Fates.
Aeacus, Agdistis, Angelos, Dardanus, Enyo, Ersa, the Litae, Pandia,
In addition, Zeus is also said to be the father of the Magnesian and Macedonian people.
Zeus is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them. Add in that as King and Ruler of the other Olympians, this is really the ideal place as Zeus can look down upon the earth and see what’s going on.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
King Of The Gods
Zeus is the ruler of the Olympian gods, ruling over all of the gods and mortals alike from Mount Olympus. As King, Zeus was the patron of Kings before later Grecian history, Kings were no longer followed. Zeus dispensed with wisdom, authority, divine decres over the lot of mortals.
Mortal Fates – Before the Moirai were born, Zeus governed the fates of men. He had two urns, one filled with ill fortune and the other filled with luck. Zeus would arbitrarily dole out man’s lot by way of fortunes and misfortunes according to his whim.
Prophecies – As an all-knowing deity who saw and knew everything he ruled over, the powers of prophecies were once Zeus’ domain before passing them on to his son Apollo.
Sky & Weather God
Zeus’ main domain is the Sky and with it, the weather and rain. Especially the thunderbolts and lightning that are his primary weapons. One of his epitaphs is Nephelegereta or “Cloud-Gatherer.” Closely connected to this epitaph as one of his symbols is the scepter, thought to be influenced with imagery from the Ancient Near East.
It was believed and still believed, even if in fun, that Zeus would strike those he sought to punish with lightning. Zeus would especially punish those who lied or broke their oaths.
Zeus would also send thunderstorms at enemies as seen in Homer’s epic, The Iliad.
On occasion, Zeus is equated with the Hellenic sun deity, Helios who is said to be Zeus’ eye. In Hesiod’ss Theogony, the sun is outright stated to be Zeus’ eye.
The Cretan version of Zeus Tallaios, the local cult equated their local deity Talos with Helios.
The Zeus that originates from Arcadia and Dodona was a nature god as seen in his connection to the oak tree and doves as a symbol of fertility. Even the Cretan Zeus connects him as a nature deity with the cornucopia, milk and honey symbols.
By the time that the Homeric poems, the nature aspect of Zeus seem to have been discarded and he is viewed more as a political and national deity that guards over Kings and the protector of law, tradition and religion.
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 to Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. The 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 are 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 a 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 are 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 nor Hesiod mentions 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 its 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
Another gift 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, is 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 it. Calliope, 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 prophecy 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 is 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 of 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 bring 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, and he looks 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 then 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 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 beings.
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 to why would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death of 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 prophecies. 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 and 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 in 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 descent 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.