The Three Graces
The Three Graces were goddesses of gracefulness, the charms of beauty, and cheerful amusement (the characteristics of loveliness). They appear to have received these designations from the Greeks during the archaic and classical periods (5th to 8th centuries B.C.), and they were known most commonly at that time as the Three Charities. This appellation was later Latinized by the Romans occupying the formerly Greek regions in which they were worshiped, and this resulted in the designation by which western civilization knows them today, the Three Graces (Staal, 2004).
There is still some debate as to their origin. The most commonly held position is that Eteocles, son of the Cephissus River, or Andreus and Euippe were influential in the origin and subsequent worship of the Graces. Initially the Graces were worshiped as three aniconic stones believed to have fallen from heaven, but soon they took their more familiar form of three maidens. It has been suggested that the original stone worship may have resulted from an astrological phenomenon. Specifically, there may have been a series of meteorites that were interpreted as a sign or representation of the gods or goddesses falling from heaven and descending upon earth during the time of Eteocles. Early connections such as these between astrological events and ancient mythologies are not uncommon.
Much of our early knowledge and foundational understanding of their mythology and its development comes from the Greek poets and writers of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Included in this list of early literary works are several notable sources: Historia Numorum, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony, Pindar’s Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian odes, a fragmented written work of Sappho, and documents from Horace and Pausanias (Reid, 1993). Perhaps the earliest of these recorded works comes from Homer. Homer first described the Charities in the Iliad. While the dating of Homer’s work is not absolute, there is general acceptance among literary scholars that he was writing possibly as early as the eighth century B.C (conceivably about 700 B.C.). In addition to Homer, the Greek poet Hesiod has also left us some information about the myth of the Charities. Hesiod may have been a contemporary of Homer, but this is unclear and often disputed. Most sources place his work somewhere between the sixth and seventh century B.C., although it has been suggested that he may date from as early as the eighth century (Hornblower and Spawforth, 1996).
Hesiod lived for a period of his life in Ascra, a town in Boetia, later dying in Hesperian and entombed in Orchomenus. This may explain the evident early worship of the Charities in these regions. It is believed that the patronage of the three and their mythology probably first appeared in the area of Orchomenus (a city of Mycenaean origins) and that the oldest sanctuary dedicated to them was located within the remains of the ancient city. According to Hesiod, in his Theogony, the goddesses were a threesome named, Aglaea (Radiance), Euphrosyne (Joy), and Thalia (Flowering). He describes their parents as Zeus and Eurynome. He also describes the charitesia or night festival that celebrated the three in Orchomenus. These annual festivals consisted of games, music, and dance and were held in honor of the Charities.
Pindar, a native of Cynoscephalae in Boetia, was born in the early sixth century B.C. (probably in 518 B.C.). His contemporaries recognized him early as a skilled lyric poet. In existence today are the remnants of at least seventeen different hymns and songs that he authored that were celebrated during his lifetime. Most of these were written to reflect victories during many of the popular Pan Hellenic games of his day. Among that list are several odes that reference the Three Graces, including Olympian 14, Pythian 9, Nemean 6 and 10, and Isthmian 6. One of the earliest odes of Pindar referring to the threesome was written in approximately 488 B.C. to the winner of a boys’ foot race entitled, For Asopichus of Orchomenus. In this ode he offers to the Three Graces a prayer of thanksgiving for their gifts of wisdom, beauty and glory, which they bestow upon mankind. He makes similar remarks in an ode for the winner of a race in armor in 474 B.C. (For Telesicrates of Cyrene) and later writes about the winner of a wrestling match in 465 B.C. (For Alcimidas of Aegina), describing the song of the Graces as an inspiration to the central character in the ode, motivating him on to victory. This same theme is carried on in yet another ode about a wrestling victory (For Theaius of Argos). Finally, Pindar writes an ode to the winner of the Pankration, a brutal competition of Greek boxing. Dated approximately 482 B.C., this ode, entitled For Phylakidas of Aegina, pays tribute to a family who had achieved prominent success in athletics. The ode draws a parallel between the generational success of Phylakidas family and the myth of Heracles prophesying the birth of Ajax to Aeacus. During all of his writings that incorporate the Graces, Pindar seems to rely on the perception that the three are in some part responsible for the blessings of victory and glory that have been placed onto the central character of the event or unfolding drama.
Pausanias, a Greek writer during the second century B.C., described several cults and images of the Three Charities throughout the ancient world. For example, he stated that in Athenian society the Charities were part of a Hellenistic cult paired alongside Demos (the personification of the people in Athenian culture). Hammond and Scullard (1970) note the great philosopher Aristotle commented on the use of the Three Charities in Athens as well. Aristotle remarked that, the sanctuary of the Charities is placed in a prominent position so that those seeing it may be reminded to requite one another’s benefits.
The popularity of the Graces spread from Boetia to other areas such as Sparta, Athens, and Crete. In fact, the earliest appearance of the Graces (possibly the Three Nymphs) on an ancient coin bears out this geographical relationship (new style tetradrachms of Athens and island sites within the Aegean). Games held in their honor in Crete date back to the time of the pre-historic king of Crete, Minos. The Graces were associated with poetry and song and are described in Hesiod’s Theogony as performing at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis (the sea nymph, mother of Achilles). It was also the custom to call upon them when taking an oath. Likewise, all banquets began with the first cup of wine being offered to them.
Initially in Greek mythology they were seen as simple guardians of the vernal sweetness and beauty of nature, and only later as the friends and protectors of everything graceful and beautiful. Pindar has written about the Graces as the source of all decorum, purity of happiness in life, good will, and beneficence and gratitude among men. Beauty, sweetness, and the best charm of poetry are believed to come from the Graces. The Greeks believed that without gracefulness, all labor was in vain and meaningless. Hence, the three deities assisted Hermes (Mercury) in his capacity as the god of oratory. In all things they were characterized as the spreaders of joy and enhancers of enjoyment of life. Social intercourse, manners, and culture were their domain, and they were frequently the subject of artists and poets alike.
The Charities are not known for an independent mythological presence, that is, they are typically depicted and described in relationship to other gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. Their strongest association is with Aphrodite (Venus), and it has been reported that they were present at her birth (this relationship is acknowledged by the variety of coins depicting their images minted in the Carian city of Aphrodisias). While their earliest forms were less defined, they were generally represented in the form of young maidens and portrayed as dancing, singing, charming, and running or bathing in fountains, or decking themselves in flowers (the rose was their sacred flower as it was Aphrodite’s, and they were reputed to facilitate its growth and blossom). Their attributes also included the myrtle and dice (a symbol of cheerful amusement). They are depicted holding apples, perfume vases, ears of corn, heads of poppies, or musical instruments such as the lyre, flute, or syrinx.
During their early development they were occasionally shown clothed (mostly during the classical period in Greece), but since Hellenistic times they have been shown almost exclusively nude or wearing transparent gowns. The reason for such a display was to convey sincerity and candor, without disguise or pretense. Stevenson (1964) described them as,three beautiful women, standing together, entirely undraped, the central figure having an arm placed each on a shoulder of the other two. They thus display, as if in a dancing attitude, symmetry of person, combining with elegance of movement, unadorned beauty, unconscious of offence to modesty, designed to indicate the constant reciprocation of kindness and friendship, without concealment of reserve, but untainted by any mixture of voluptuous familiarity.
Their home was among the muses upon Mount Olympia. Usually Zeus is considered to be their father, but their mother has been believed to be Hera, Eurynome, Eunomia, Eurydomene, Harmonia, or Lethe. Others have indicated them to be daughters of Apollo and Aegle or Euanthe, or of Dionysus and Aphrodite or Coronis. However, they are most frequently thought of as offspring of Zeus and Eurynome (daughter of Oceanus). Although the Three Graces are often thought to be the sole attendants of Aphrodite, they are commonly presented beside the muses and the four seasons (horae). It has been said, while the muses inspired, the Charities applied the artists products to the embellishment of life (author unknown). In addition to the muses and seasons, other companions of the trio were Hera, Hermes, Eros, Aphrodite, and Apollo. In earlier times, Dionysus was also a companion until his worship turned to riotous celebration and drunkenness, behaviors incompatible with the more refined tastes of the Graces that advocated moderation in everything.
In Orchomenus they were known as Aglaea or Aglaia (the one who harvests) named as such for her beauty and goodness; Euphrosyne (the one who brings joy) named for her cheerfulness, and Thalia (the one who blossoms) named for her perpetual freshness. This breakdown in naming and attribution has not been universally accepted. Each province or city in which they were worshiped developed its own idiosyncratic attributions. For example, in Sparta they are represented as a duo, Kleta or Cleta (clang or sound) and Phaenna (glimmer or light). In Athens, they were initially conceptualized as a two-some, Auxo (increase) and Hegemone (queen), and later a third was added, Peitho. Peck (1962) indicated that all Athenian youth called upon these three when swearing allegiance to Athens.
As mentioned previously, throughout human history various literary and artistic sources have commented on the trio. The Iliad makes reference to a race of Graces or Charities, the youngest (or one of the youngest) of which is named Pasithea. In Homer’s account, Sleep persuades Hera to swear upon the river Styx that she will give him Pasithea whom he describes as, the one whom all my days I have longed for. (Homer, p. 301). Other accounts suggest that Aglaea was one of the youngest and married to Hephaestos. It should be noted that this is contradictory to Homer’s account in the Illiad, where he describes Charis as the wife of Hephaestos. The coupling between Aglaea and Hephaestos may have made sense to the ancient Greeks, given the beauty they ascribed to the god Hephaestos artwork. Homer also makes reference to the Graces in The Odyssey when he describes the spell of Athene over the daughter of Icarius. In this account, Homer details that Athene casts a spell of beauty over her. This spell caused her physical appearance to rival that of Cytherea an attendant of the dances of the Graces. (Homer, p. 278). Hermesianax, a Greek poet of the third century B.C., also commented on the Charities. In his writings, he described one of the Charities, Persuasion or Peitho, and provided an account of how she became the third charity to be added to Auxo and Hegemone in Athenian culture.
One story taken from these writers tells of a dispute among the Three Charities (Pasithea, Cale, and Euphrosyne) and Aphrodite regarding who was considered the most beautiful. The contest was decided by Teiresias, which may suggest that these Charities were worshiped by the Thebans as well. Although there are many stories and fanciful tales that exist today regarding the Graces, it is of note that none of the three was ever credited with a sexual liaison or scandalous affair with a mortal. The absence of such a relationship was a rarity in Greek mythology.
The collective three are the personification of grace and are depicted as such throughout ancient Greek and Roman art. Statues of them were erected in various cities of Greece, such as Sparta, Athens, Elis, Hermione, Side, and Aphrodisias, and mosaics of the threesome were also popular in antiquity. While they witnessed widespread artistic expression in the form of statues, stone reliefs, and mosaics, their inclusion in ancient coinage became popular during the late 2nd century A.D., extending into the middle of the 3rd century A.D. This finding is unusual given that they were frequently worshiped from 400 B.C. until the close of the Roman Empire (middle of the 4th cent. A.D.). This is also unusual in light of the Greeks’ passion for display of the human body in its most fit forms. Spanheim, in his work Caesars de Julien, stated, It is not disagreeable to see the figures of the Graces, as they are found on many ancient coins, conformable to those which the poets describe to us.
- An art topic depicted in dozens of paintings and sculptures, including:
- Primavera (Botticelli), a 15th-century painting by Botticelli
- The Three Graces (Raphael), a 16th-century painting by Raphael
- The Three Graces (Rubens), a 17th-century painting by Rubens
- The Three Graces (sculpture), a 19th-century neoclassical sculpture by Antonio Canova
- The Three Graces (Indianapolis), a 19th- or 20th-century neoclassical sculpture by an unknown artist, located at the Indianapolis Museum of Art
- Three Graces (Mack), an abstract sculpture by Heinz Mack, located at the Lynden Sculpture Garden
- The Three Graces, painting by Michael Parkes referred to in Dan Brown's 2009 novel The Lost Symbol
- The Three Graces (Cranach), a 16th-century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder
- The Three Graces (d'Antoine) (Trois Graces), an 18th-century fountain by Étienne d'Antoine in the Place de la Comédie, Montpellier, France
- Nymph (Central Figure for "The Three Graces"), a 20th-century sculpture by Aristide Maillol
- Les Trois Grâces, a 20th-century sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle
- The Three Graces, a 20th-century painting by Delmas Howe
- The Three Graces, a 1908 opera that opened at the Chicago Opera House and starred such performers as Trixie Friganza
- The Three Graces (Три грации), a 1988 Russian opera parody composed by Vladimir Tarnopolsky
- The Three Graces, a set of three historic buildings on the waterfront in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Pier Head, Liverpool, England
- The Three Graces of Admin, three minor characters in the British situation comedy Campus.
- Staal, M. (2004). The Three Graces and their Numismatic Mythology. Santa Clara, CA: Author.
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