Chelone (Greek mythology)

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For other uses, see Chelone (disambiguation).

In Greek mythology, Chelone (Χελώνη, Khelônê) was a nymph or a mortal woman who was changed into a tortoise by the gods. "Khelônê" means "tortoise" in Greek, and the tortoise was a symbol both of the lyre and of silence in ancient times, as in the ancient riddle Dum vixi tacui mortua dulce cano, "While alive I was silent; dead I sing sweetly."

The main source for the myth of Chelone is Servius’s commentary on Virgil's Aeneid, where Chelone is a nymph transformed by Hermes for refusing to attend the wedding of Hera and Zeus.

"For his wedding with Juno [Hera], Jupiter [Zeus] ordered Mercurius [Hermes] to invite all the gods, the men and the animals to the wedding. Everyone invited by Mercurius [Hermes] came, except for Chelone who did not deign to be there, mocking the wedding. When Mercurius noticed her absence, he went back down to the earth, threw in the river the house of Chelone that was standing over the river and changed Chelone in an animal that would bear her name. Chelone is said testudo (tortoise) in Latin.” [1]

Certain parts of the myth[citation needed] tell that Chelone was taking too long to be ready for the feast, which caused Zeus to become angry. In retribution, he crashed her house over her, and thus condemned her to drag her house forever as a tortoise.

Although Chelone's transformation was not mentioned in sources other than Servius, what is clearly a version of the same myth is found in Aesop’s Fables, where the main character is a tortoise to begin with, but does not initially have a shell:

"Zeus invited all the animals to his wedding. The tortoise alone was absent, and Zeus did not know why, so he asked the tortoise (khelone) her reason for not having come to the feast. The tortoise said, ‘Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.’ Zeus got angry at the tortoise and ordered her to carry her house with her wherever she went.”[2]

It is worth noting that the tortoise also appears in a different myth concerning Hermes: he was believed to have made the first harp from a tortoise's shell.[3][4]


  1. ^ Servius, On Virgil's Aeneid 1. 505
  2. ^ Aesop, Fables 508 (from Chambry 125)
  3. ^ Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes, 25 - 60
  4. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 17. 5

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