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Aether (mythology)

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Primordial god and personification of the Upper Sky
Member of the Primordial Gods
Aether in battle with a lion-headed Giant
ParentsErebus and Nyx (Hesiod)
Chronos (Orphic)
SiblingsHemera (Hesiod)
Chaos and Erebus (Orphic)

In Greek mythology, Aether, Æther, Aither, or Ether (/ˈθər/; Ancient Greek: Αἰθήρ (Brightness)[1] pronounced [ai̯tʰɛ̌ːr]) is the personification of the bright upper sky. According to Hesiod, he was the son of Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), and the brother of Hemera (Day).[2] In Orphic cosmogony Aether was the offspring of Chronos (Time), and the brother of Chaos and Erebus.[3]


According to Hesiod's Theogony, which contained the "standard" Greek genealogy of the gods,[4] Aether was the offspring of Erebus and Nyx, and the brother of Hemera.[5] However, other early sources give other genealogies. According to one, the union of Erebus and Nyx resulted in Aether, Eros, and Metis (rather than Aether and Hemera), while according to another, Aether and Nyx were the parents of Eros (in Hesiod, the fourth god to come into existence after Chaos, Gaia (Earth), and Tartarus).[6] Others tell us that Uranus (Sky) (in Hesiod, the son of Gaia) was Aether's son, and that "everything came from" Aether.[7]

In Orphic cosmogony Aether was the offspring of Chronus (Time), the first primordial deity, and the brother of Chaos and Erebus. And made from (or placed in) Aether was the cosmic egg, from which hatched Phanes/Protogonus, so Aether was sometimes said to be his father.[8] The Orphic Argonautica gives a theogony that begins with Chaos and Chronus, and has Chronus producing Aether and Eros.[9]

Aether also played a role in Roman genealogies of the gods. Cicero says that Aether and Dies (Day) were the parents of Caelus (Sky),[10] and reports that according to the "so called theologians" Aether was the father of one of the "three Jupiters".[11] According to Hyginus's (possibly confused)[12] genealogy, Nox (Night), Dies, Erebus, and Aether were the offspring of Chaos and Caligo (Mist), and Aether and Dies were the parents of Terra (Earth), Caelus (Sky) and Mare (Sea),[13] and Aether and Terra were the parents of:

Pain, Deception, Anger, Mourning, Lying, Oath, Vengeance, Self-indulgence, Quarreling, Forgetfullness, Sloth, Fear, Arrogance, Incest, Fighting, Ocean, Themis, Tartarus, and Pontus; and the Titans, Briareus, Gyges, Steropes, Atlas, Hyperion and Polus, Saturn, Ops, Moneta, Dione, and the three Furies (Alecto, Megaera, Tisiphone).[14]



For the ancient Greeks, the word aether (unpersonified), referred to the upper atmosphere, a material element of the cosmos.[15] For example Homer has Sleep climb:

a fir-tree exceeding tall, the highest that then grew in Ida; and it reached up through the mists into heaven [aether].[16]

However, Aether (personified) figured prominently in early Greek cosmogony.[17] In Hesiod's Theogony, Chaos was the first being after which came Gaia (Earth), Tartarus, and Eros, then from Chaos came Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night), and from Erebus and Nyx came Aether and Hemera (Day):[18]

From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus.[19]

Aether perhaps also figured in the lost epic poem the Titanomachy (late seventh century BC?).[20] Two ancient sources report statements about Aether, which they attribute to the "author of the Titanomachy". The Homeric Parsings (from Methodius), reports that Uranus was Aether's son,[21] while Philodemus, in his De Pietate (On Piety), reports that "everything came from Aither".[22]

Aether also appears in genealogies attributed to the sixth-century BC logographer and mythographer Acusilaus.[23] According to the Neoplatonist Damascius (c. early sixth century), Acusilaus said that Aether was, along with Eros and Metis, the offspring Erebus and Nyx.[24] However, a scholion to Theocritus reports that, according to Acusilaus, Aether and Nyx were the parents of Eros.[25]


Jacob Bryant's Orphic Egg (1774)

Aether played a significant role in Orphic cosmogony.[26] There are a large number of ancient texts which have been called "Orphic", a few are extant, such as the Orphic Hymns, but most are not.[27] Several important Orphic texts, which exist now only in fragments, have been called theogonies, since they contained material, similar to Hesiod's Theogony, which described the origin of the gods. At least three of these, the so called "Derveni Theogony", the "Hieronyman Theogony", and the "Rhapsodic Theogony" or Rhapsodies,[28] contained references to Aether the personification as well as aether the material element.

Derveni Theogony[edit]

The oldest of these theogonies, the Derveni Theogony, is a text which is extensively quoted in the Derveni papyrus (fourth century BC).[29] One of these quotes contains a reference to aether the material element:[30]

When Zeus had heard the prophecies from his father,
he swallowed the revered one [or phallus], who [or which] sprang forth
first into the aither [or who first ejaculated aither].[31]

Also possibly from the Derveni Theogony is the idea, from a fragment of Chrysippus (preserved in Philodemus, De Pietate (On Piety)), that "everywhere is aither, which itself is both father and son".[32]

Hieronyman Theogony[edit]

The early 6th-century Neoplatonist Damascius, in his De principiis (On First Principles) comments on an Orphic text, which he describes as "under the names of Hieronymus and Hellanicus, if indeed this is not the same".[33] This text is called the "Hieronyman Theogony" (second century BC).[34] Damascius says that the Hieronyman Theogony had "serpent Time" as the father of three offspring, "moist Aether", "limitless Chaos" and "misty Erebos".[35]

Rhapsodic Theogony[edit]

Also in his De principiis, Damascius briefly summarizes the "standard Orphic theology" as found in another text, which he refers to as "these Orphic Rhapsodies currently circulating".[36] According to Damascius, the Rhapsodies (first century BC/AD?),[37] began with Chronus from which came two offspring, Aether and Chaos:[38]

the theology in the Rhapsodies, ... starts from ... "ageless Time" and father of Aether and Chaos which is honored most in that account.[39]

The 5th-century Greek Neoplatonist Proclus, in his Commentary on Plato's Republic, quotes the following verses from the Rhapsodies:

This Time unaging, of immortal resource, begot
Aither and a great Chasm, vast this way and that,
no limit below it, no base, no place to settle.[40]

Here Chasm is another name for Chaos.[41] In another passage from the De principiis, Damascius quotes other verses from the Rhapsodies:

Then great Time fashioned from (or in) divine Aither
a bright white egg.[42]

While Proclus, in his Commentary on Plato's Timaeus, describes the Orphic cosmic egg as "born from Aither and Chaos",[43] and calls Phanes the "son of Aither".[44] Proclus also says that, when Phanes hatched from the cosmic egg, Aether and Chasm were split.[45]

Aether, the material element is also mentioned twice in a thirty-two line hymn-like passage to Zeus which was apparently part of the Rhapsodies in which various parts of the physical cosmos are associated with parts of Zeus' body.[46] Line 8 lists things contained in Zeus' body:

fire and water and earth and air [aether], night and day,[47]

while line 17 says:

his [Zeus'] truthful, royal mind is imperishable aither.[48]

Also possibly drawn from the Rhapsodies is an account of the creation of the world attributed to "Orpheus" by the sixth century AD chronographer John Malalas:[49]

This is what Orpheus stated. He said that at the beginning Aither was revealed to Time, having been created by God, and there was Chaos on this side of Aither, and on that, while dark Night held everything and covered what was under Aither, signifying that Night came first. Orpheus said in his account that there was a certain Being who was incomprehensible, supreme over all, before all, and the creator of all things, including the Aither itself and Night and the whole creation that was concealed and was beneath the Aither. He said that the Earth was invisible beneath the darkness. He declared that Light broke through the Aither and illuminated the Earth and all creation, saying that the Light which broke through the Aither was that being mentioned above, that was supreme over all things, whose name Orpheus heard from the oracle and declared: "Metis, Phanes, Erikepaios".[50]

Another Orphic verse fragment, also possibly from the Rhapsodies, is quoted in the Etymologicum Magnum's entry on the name Phanes:[51]

they call him Phanes
and Protogonus because he became the first one visible (φαντός) in Aither.[52]

Hymn to Aether[edit]

The Orphic Hymns (3rd century AD?) are a collection of eighty-seven poems addressed to various deities or abstractions.[53] The fifth Orphic Hymn was addressed to Aether:

Yours are Zeus' lofty dwelling, endless power too;
of the stars, of the sun, and of the moon you claim a share.
O tamer of all, O fire-breather, O life's spark for every creature,
sublime Ether, best cosmic element,
radiant, luminous, starlit offspring,
I call upon you and I beseech you to be temperate and clear.[54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gantz, p. 4.
  2. ^ Hard, p. 24; Grimal s.v. Aether; Tripp, s.v. Aether; The Oxford Classical Dictionary, s.v. Aither; Gantz, p. 4.
  3. ^ Athanassakis and Wolkow, p. 80.
  4. ^ Hard, p. 21; Fowler 2013, p. 5.
  5. ^ Fowler 2013, p. 5; Hard, pp. 23–24; Hesiod, Theogony 124–125.
  6. ^ Fowler 2013, pp. 5–6; Hard, p. 23; Acusilas fr. 6 Fowler (pp. 5–7); Hesiod, Theogony 116–122.
  7. ^ Eumelus fr. 1 (West 2003, pp. 222–225); compare Callimachus, fr. 498.
  8. ^ Athanassakis and Wolkow, p. 80; West 1983, p. 70; Meisner, p. 187; Hard, p. 25.
  9. ^ Meisner, p. 172; Orphic Argonautica 12–14; Orphic test. 224 Kern.
  10. ^ Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3.44.
  11. ^ Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3.53.
  12. ^ Bremmer, p. 5, calls the beginning of Hyginus' genealogy "a strange hodgepodge of Greek and Roman cosmogonies and early genealogies".
  13. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae Theogony 1–2 (Smith and Trzaskoma, p. 95).
  14. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae Theogony 3 (Smith and Trzaskoma, p. 95). Hyginus's genealogy is very different from that given in Hesiod's Theogony, where Tartarus is the third primal deity after Chaos and Gaia (116–122); Uranus (Sky) and Pontus (Sea) were the offspring of Gaia (Earth) alone (126–132); Ocean (Oceanus), Themis, Hyperion, Saturn (Cronus), and Ops (Rhea) are five of the twelve Titans, Briareus and Gyges are two of the three Hundred-Handers, and Steropes was one of the three Cyclopes, who were all the offspring of Gaia and Uranus (132–153); Atlas was the offspring of the Titans Iapetus and Clymene (507–509); the Furies (Erinyes) are the offspring of Gaia and Uranus' blood (185). In addition the abstract personifications Pain, Deception, Anger, Mourning, Lying, Oath, Vengeance, Self-indulgence, Quarreling, Forgetfullness, Sloth, Fear, Arrogance, Incest, and Fighting, are similar to the personifications, in the Theogony, who are the children of Nyx (211–225, e.g. Oizys (Distress), and Apate (Deceit)) or Eris (226–232, e.g. Algea (Pains), Pseudea (Lies), Horkos (Oath), Neikea (Disputes), Lethe (Forgetfulness), Hysminai (Combats), and Makhai (Battles)).
  15. ^ Athanassakis and Wolkow, p. 80.
  16. ^ Homer, Iliad 14.286–288.
  17. ^ Fowler 2013, p. 6.
  18. ^ Gantz, p. 4; Hesiod, Theogony 123–125.
  19. ^ Evelyn-White translation.
  20. ^ West 2002, p. 109 says that the Titanomachy was "composed in the late seventh century at the earliest".
  21. ^ Gantz, p. 12; Grimal, s.v. Uranus; Eumelus fr. 1 (West 2003, pp. 222–225); compare Callimachus, fr. 498. According to Grimal the mother was "doubtless" Hemera, compare with Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3.44, which has Aether and Dies as the parents of Caelus (Sky).
  22. ^ Eumelus fr. 1 (West 2003, pp. 222–225).
  23. ^ Fowler 2013, p. 6; Acusilas fr. 6 Fowler (pp. 5–7).
  24. ^ Fowler 2013, p. 6.
  25. ^ Fowler 2013, p. 6; Gantz, p. 3.
  26. ^ West 1983, pp. 70, 198–200; Meisner (throughout, see index); Athanassakis and Wolkow, pp. 5, 80 (citing Orphic frr. 78, 111 Bernabé); Orphic frr. 30 [= Chrysippus, apud Philodemus, De Pietate (On Piety) pp. 80–81 Gomperz], 54 [= Damascius, De principiis 123.31–80], 60 [= Damascius, De principiis 123.8–30], 65 [= John Malalas, Chronographia 4.9 p. 74 Dindorf], 66 [= Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Republic 2.138.8 Kroll], 70 [= Damascius, De principiis 55], 72 [= Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Republic 2.138.18 Kroll], 73 [= Lactantius, Divine Institutes I, 5, 4–6 p. 13, 13 Brandt.], 74 [= Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Timaeus 31 a (I 433, 31 Diehl)], 75 [= Etymologicum Magnum p. 787.29, 76 [= Hermias, Commentary on Plato's Phaedrus 246e], 79 [= Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Timaeus 30 c, d (I 427, 20 Diehl)], 168 Kern; Orphic test. 224 Kern [= Orphic Argonautica 7–46.
  27. ^ West 1983, pp. 1–3; Meisner, pp. 4–5; Athanassakis and Wolkow, p. xi.
  28. ^ West 1983, pp. 68–69; Meisner, p. 1; Athanassakis and Wolkow, pp. xi–xii.
  29. ^ West 1983, pp. 75–77; Meisner, p. 1; Athanassakis and Wolkow, p. xi. For discussions of the Derveni papyrus and theogony see West 1983, Chapter 3: "The Protogonos and Derveni Theogonies" (pp. 68–115); Meisner, Chapter 2: "The Derveni Papyrus" (pp. 51–85)
  30. ^ Meisner, pp. 31–32, 69, 80–81.
  31. ^ Meisner, p. 69.
  32. ^ Meisner, p. 103; Orphic fr. 30 Kern [= Chrysippus, apud Philodemus, De Pietate (On Piety) pp. 80–81 Gomperz]. Meisner, p. 103 n. 77 says that Bernabé "relates this fragment to the Derveni poem."
  33. ^ Damascius, De principiis 123.31–32 (White, pp. 232, 233); West 1983, p. 176.
  34. ^ Meisner, p. 1. For discussions of the Hieronyman Theogony, see West 1983, Chapter 4: "The Hieronyman Theogony" (pp. 176–226); Meisner, Chapter 4: "The Hieronyman Theogony" (pp. 119–157). For Damascius' entire account of the Hieronyman Theogony, see De principiis 123.31–80 (White, pp. 232–237) [= Orphic fr. 54 Kern.
  35. ^ Damascius, De principiis 123.56–58 (White, pp. 234, 235) West 1983, p. 198. Although Meisner, p. 144, reads Damascius as saying that "Chronos mates with Necessity" (Ananke), "who gives birth to Aither, Chaos, and Erebus", West 1983, pp. 198–199, argues against such a reading, saying "Although Chronos and Ananke make a well-matched male and female pair, the sources agree in speaking of Chronos alone as parent."
  36. ^ Damascius, De principiis 123.8–30 (White, pp. 228–231) [= Orphic fr. 60.
  37. ^ West 1983, p. 261; Meisner, p. 5.
  38. ^ West 1983, p. 230; Meisner p. 187.
  39. ^ Damascius, De principiis 123.49–55 (White, pp. 234, 235).
  40. ^ West 1983, p. 198; Meisner, p. 188; Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Republic 2.138.8 Kroll [= Orphic fr. 66 Kern.
  41. ^ West 1983, p. 199; Meisner, p. 188.
  42. ^ West 1983, p. 198; Meisner, p. 189; Damascius, De principiis 55] [= Orphic fr. 70 Kern.
  43. ^ West 1983, p. 200; Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Timaeus 30 c, d (I 427, 20 Diehl)] [= Orphic fr. 79 Kern.
  44. ^ West 1983, p. 200; Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Timaeus 31 a (I 433, 31 Diehl)] [= Orphic fr. 74 Kern; so also Orphic fr. 73 Kern [= Lactantius, Divine Institutes I, 5, 4–6 p. 13, 13 Brandt.]. However, concerning these passages of Proclus, West 1983, p. 200, cautions: "We must be ... prepared not to attach too literal a sense to Proclus' description of the egg as 'born from Aither and Chaos' (fr. 79), or to verses in which Protogonos, who came from the egg, is styled 'son of Aither' (frr. 73, 74). It seems clear that Aither was not represented as a person, only as a material element."
  45. ^ West 1983, pp. 70, 203; Gantz, p. 742; Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Republic 2.138.18 Kroll] [= Orphic fr. 72 Kern.
  46. ^ West 1983, pp. 89, 239–241; Meisner, pp. 105–107, 112; Orphic fr. 168 Kern.
  47. ^ West 1983, p. 241. Compare with Aeschylus, Heliades (Daughters of Helios) fr. 70 Sommerstein [= fr. 70 Radt] [= Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, = Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 13.13.41]: "Zeus is the aether, Zeus is earth, Zeus is heaven—yes, Zeus is everything, and whatever there may be beyond that."
  48. ^ Meisner, p. 112.
  49. ^ Meisner, pp. 173–174, 205; John Malalas, Chronographia 4.9 [= Orphic fr. 65 Kern.
  50. ^ Elizabeth Jefferys, Michael Jefferys and Roger Scott's translation, p. 36.
  51. ^ Meisner, p. 195; Etymologicum Magnum p. 787.29 [= Orphic fr. 75 Kern.
  52. ^ Meisner's translation, p. 195.
  53. ^ Athanassakis and Wolkow, p. x; Meisner, p. 4.
  54. ^ Athanassakis and Wolkow, p. 5.