Tethys (mythology)

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Tethys, mid-fourth-century mosaic, Philipopolis (today Shahba, Syria), Shahba Museum

In Greek mythology, Tethys (/ˈtθs, ˈtɛθs/; Greek: Τηθύς), was a Titan daughter of Uranus and Gaia, and the wife of her brother Titan Oceanus, and the mother by him of the river gods and the Oceanids. Tethys had no active role in Greek mythology, and no established cults.[1]


Tethys was one of the Titan offspring of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth).[2] Hesiod lists her Titan syblings as Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Cronus.[3] Tethys married her brother, Oceanus, an enormous river encircling the world, and was, by him, the mother of numerous sons, who were river-gods, and numerous daughters, known as the Oceanids.[4] According to Hesiod, there were three thousand river gods, including Nilus (Nile), Alpheus, and Scamander,[5] and three thousand Oceanids, including Doris, Callirhoe, Styx, Clymene, Metis, Eurynome, Perseis, and Idyia.[6]

Passages in a section of the Iliad called the Deception of Zeus, suggest the possibility that Homer knew a tradition in which Oceanus and Tethys (rather than Uranus and Gaia, as in Hesiod) were the parents of the Titans.[7] Twice Homer has Hera describe the pair as "Oceanus, from whom the gods are sprung, and mother Tethys",[8] while in the same passage Hypnos describes Oceanus as "from whom they all are sprung".[9] Gantz, points out that "mother" may simply refer to the fact that Tethys was Hera's foster mother for a time, as Hera tells us in the lines immediately following, while the reference to Oceanus as the genesis of the gods "might be simply a formulaic epithet indicating the numberless rivers and springs descended from Okeanos" (compare with Iliad 21.195–197).[10] However, for M. L. West, these lines suggests a myth in which Oceanus and Tethys are the "first parents of the whole race of gods."[11] Perhaps as an attempt to reconcile this possible conflict between Homer and Hesiod, Plato, in his Timaeus, has Uranus and Gaia as the parents of Oceanus and Tethys, and Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of Cronus and Rhea and the other Titans, as well as Phorcys.[12]


Tethys played no active part in Greek mythology, the only early story concerning Tethys, is what Homer has Hera briefly relate in the Iliad's Deception of Zeus passage.[13] There, Hera says that, when Zeus was in the process of deposing Cronus, she was given by her mother Rhea to Tethys and Oceanus, for safekeeping, and that they "lovingly nursed and cherished me in their halls".[14] Hera relates this while dissembling that she is on her way to visit Oceanus and Tethys, in hopes of reconciling her foster parents, who angry with each other, are no longer having sexual relations.

Roman mosaic of Tethys from Antioch, Turkey

Originally Oceanus' consort, at a later time Tethys, came to be identified with the sea, and In Hellenistic and Roman poetry, Tethys' name came to be used as a poetic term for the sea.[15]

The only other story involving Tethys is an apparently late astral myth concerning the polar constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear), which was thought to represent the catasterism of Callisto, who was transformed into a bear, and placed by Zeus among the stars. The myth explains why the constellation never sets below the horizon, saying that since Callisto had been Zeus's lover, she was forbidden by Tethys from "touching Ocean's deep", out of concern for her foster-child Hera, Zeus's jealous wife.[16]

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Tethys turns Aesacus into a diving bird.[17]

Tethys was sometimes confused with another sea goddess, the sea-nymph Thetis, the wife of Peleus and mother of Achilles.[18]

Tethys as Tiamat[edit]

M. L. West detects in the Deception of Zeus passage an allusion to a possible archaic myth "according to which [Tethys] was the mother of the gods, long estranged from her husband," speculating that the estrangement might refer to a separation of "the upper and lower waters ... corresponding to that of heaven and earth", which would parallel the story of "Apsū and Tiamat in the Babylonian cosmology, the male and female waters which were originally united (En. El. I. 1 ff.)", but that "by Hesiod's time the myth may have been almost forgotten, and Tethys remembered only as the name of Oceanus' wife."[19] This possible correspondence between Oceanus and Tethys, and Apsū and Tiamat, has been noticed by several authors, with Tethys' name possibly having been derived from that of Tiamat.[20]

Pictorial representation[edit]

One of the few representations of Tethys to be identified securely by an accompanying inscription is the Late Antique (fourth century CE) mosaic from the flooring of a thermae at Antioch, now at Morgan Hall of the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts,[21] after being moved from Dumbarton Oaks.[22] In the Dumbarton Oaks mosaic, the bust of Tethys—surrounded by fishes—is rising, bare-shouldered from the waters. Against her shoulder rests a golden ship’s rudder. Gray wings sprout from her forehead, as in the mosaics illustrated above and below.



Modern use of the name[edit]

Tethys, a moon of the planet Saturn, and the prehistoric Tethys Ocean are named after this goddess.


  1. ^ Burkert, p. 92.
  2. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 132–138; Apollodorus, 1.1.3. Compare with Diodorus Siculus, 5.66.1–3, which says that the Titans (including Tethys) "were born, as certain writers of myths relate, of Uranus and Gê, but according to others, of one of the Curetes and Titaea, from whom as their mother they derive the name".
  3. ^ Apollodorus adds Dione to this list, while Diodorus Siculus leaves out Theia.
  4. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 337–370; Apollodorus, 1.2.2; Callimachus, Hymn 3.40–45 (Mair, pp. 62–63); Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, 242–244 (Seaton, pp. 210–211).
  5. ^ Hesiod names 22 others: Eridanos, Strymon, Maiandros, Istros, Phasis, Rhesus, Achelous, Nessos, Rhodius, Haliacmon, Heptaporus, Granicus, Aesepus, Simoeis, Peneus, Hermus, Caicus, Sangarius, Ladon, Parthenius, Evenus,and Aldeskos.
  6. ^ Hesiod names 33 others: Peitho, Admete, Electra, Ianthe, Prymno, Urania, Hippo, Rhodeia, Zeuxo, Clytia, Pasithoe, Plexaura, Galaxaure, Dione, Melobosis, Thoe, Polydora, Cerceis, Plouto, Ianeira, Acaste, Xanthe, Petraea, Menestho, Europa, Telesto, Chryseis, Asia, Calypso, Eudora, Tyche, Amphiro, and Ocyrhoe.
  7. ^ Gantz, pp.11–12; Hard, pp. 36–37, p. 40; Burkert, pp. 91–92.
  8. ^ Homer, Iliad 14.201, 302 [= 201].
  9. ^ Homer, Iliad 245.
  10. ^ Gantz, p. 11.
  11. ^ West 1997, p. 197.
  12. ^ Gantz, pp.11–12; Plato, Timaeus 40d–e.
  13. ^ Gantz, p. 28: "For Tethys, there are no myths at all, save for Hera’s comment in the ‘’Iliad’’ that she was given by Rhea to Tethys to raise when Zeus was deposing Kronos"; Burkert, p. 92: “Tethys is in no way an active figure in Greek mythology”; West 1997, p. 147: "In early poetry she is merely an inactive mythological figure who lives with Oceanus and has borne his children."
  14. ^ Homer, Iliad 14.201–204.
  15. ^ West 1966, p. 204 136. Τῃθύν; West 1997, p. 147; Hard, p. 40; Matthews, p. 199. According to Matthews the "metonymy 'Tethys' = 'sea' seems to occur first in Hellenistic poetry", see for example Lycophron, Alexandria 1069 1069 (Mair, pp. 582–583)), becoming a frequent occurrence in Latin poetry, for example appearing nine times in Lucan.
  16. ^ Hard, p. 40; Hyginus, Fabulae 177; Astronomica 2.1; Ovid, Fasti 2.191–192 (Frazer, pp. 70–71); Metamorphoses 2.508–530.
  17. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.784–795.
  18. ^ This happened "even in antiquity", according to Burkert, p. 92.
  19. ^ West 1966, p. 204.
  20. ^ West 1997, pp. 147–148; Burkert, pp. 91–93. For a discussion of the possibility of oriental sources for the Illiad's Deception of Zeus passage, see Budelmann and Haubold, pp. 20–22.
  21. ^ Harbus.org, particularly, Tethys Mosaic
  22. ^ Sara M. Wages, “A Note on the Dumbarton Oaks ‘Tethys Mosaic’”. In: Dumbarton Oaks Papers 40 (1986), pp. 119-128. Wages notes a sixth-century Attic vase painted by Sophilos at the British Museum, where Tethys is identified among the guests, that included all of the deities, at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. She appends a list of other similar, though [unidentified] images from the Greek east as far as Armenia, that can be taken for Tethys.
  23. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 132–138, 337–411, 453–520, 901–906, 915–920; Caldwell, pp. 8–11, tables 11–14.
  24. ^ Although usually the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, as in Hesiod, Theogony 371–374, in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4), 99–100, Selene is instead made the daughter of Pallas the son of Megamedes.
  25. ^ According to Hesiod, Theogony 507–511, Clymene, one of the Oceanids, the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, at Hesiod, Theogony 351, was the mother by Iapetus of Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus, while according to Apollodorus, 1.2.3, another Oceanid, Asia was their mother by Iapetus.
  26. ^ According to Plato, Critias, 113d–114a, Atlas was the son of Poseidon and the mortal Cleito.
  27. ^ In Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 18, 211, 873 (Sommerstein, pp. 444–445 n. 2, 446–447 n. 24, 538–539 n. 113) Prometheus is made to be the son of Themis.


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