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Eos, the Ancient Greek Goddess of the Dawn

Eos
Eos, the Greek Goddess of the Dawn, with Memnon So-called “Memnon pieta”: Eos is shown lifting the body of her son Memnon. Kalos inscription. Interior from an Attic red-figure cup, ca. 490–480 BC. Signed by Douris (painter) and Kalliades (potter); from Capua, Italy. Credit: Bibi Saint-Pol/Public Domain

Eos, the ancient Greek goddess of the dawn, with her abode the sky, was perhaps the most resplendent of all the beings in the Greek pantheon. With the brilliant dye of saffron as her color, she is also associated with roses, which also embody the glowing hues of the dawn.

Born, according to some Greek myths, from the gods Hyperion and Theia, her siblings were Helios, the god of the sun, and Selene, the goddess of the moon. Her name was spelled in Ionic and Homeric Greek Ἠώς, or Ēṓs, and in Attic Greek Ἕως, or Héōs.

Her children were Anemoi and Astraea, the gods and goddess of the four winds Boreas, Notus, Eurus, and Zephyrus and of five Astra Planeta, or “Wandering Stars”, i.e. planets: Phainon (Saturn), Phaethon (Jupiter), Pyroeis (Mars), Eosphoros/Hesperos (Venus), and Stilbon (Mercury).

Some sources mention one daughter of Eos, Astraea, who is the goddess of innocence and, sometimes, justice.

Her other notable offspring were Memnon and Emathion by the Trojan prince, Tithonus. Sometimes, Hesperus, Phaethon and Tithonus (not the lover) were called the children of Eos by the Athenian prince Cephalus.

Dawn
“Dawn,” by Romantic painter Willam Adolphe Bougereau. Credit: Public Domain

With her Roman equivalent of “Aurora,” she personified the glory of the new day.

Her consort was Astraeus, the god of the dusk, who was wither a second-generation Titan or one of the Gigantes, descended from Tartarus and Gaia, the god and goddess of the Underworld and the Earth.

Eos was one of the Titans, who rose each morning from her home at the edge of the Oceanus.

Like her Roman identity of Aurora and the Rigvedic Ushas in India, Ēṓs continues the name of an earlier Indo-European dawn goddess known as Hausos.

All four are considered derivatives of the Proto-Indo-European stem *h₂ewsṓs (later *Ausṓs), “dawn”. This root also gave rise to the Proto-Germanic word *Austrō, Old High German *Ōstara and Old English Ēostre / Ēastre.

According to etymological experts, these cognates led to the reconstruction of the name of the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess, known as Hausos (*H₂éwsōs).

Eos was the daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia: Hyperion was known as a bringer of light, the One Above, Who Travels High Above the Earth; Theia was referred to as The Divine, and also called Euryphaessa, “wide-shining” and Aethra, or “bright sky.”

Hesiod, in his work Theogony, stated that Eos was the sister of Helios, the god of the sun, and Selene, one of the goddesses of the moon, “who shine upon all that are on earth and upon the deathless gods who live in the wide heaven.”

Eos
Eos as portrayed in the Gigantomachy Frieze, riding sidesaddle on the Pergamon Altar, Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany. Credit: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta/CC BY-SA 4.0

The generation of Titans preceded all the familiar deities of Olympus — who largely supplanted them in the Ancient Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. In some accounts, Eos’ father was also called Pallas.

Eos, the goddess of the Dawn, was almost always described having “rosy fingers” or “rosy forearms,” as she opened the gates of heaven for the Sun to rise each day.

Rosy-fingered and with golden arms, she is depicted on Attic vases as a beautiful woman, crowned with a tiara or diadem and with the large white-feathered wings of a bird. In Homer’s work the Iliad, her saffron-colored robe is embroidered or woven with flowers.

The Iliad describes her thus: “Now when Dawn in robe of saffron was hastening from the streams of Oceanus, to bring light to mortals and immortals, Thetis reached the ships with the armor that the god had given her.

Eos Chariot
Eos in her chariot flying over the sea; red-figure krater from South Italy, 430–420 BC. Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Credit: Bibi Saint-Pol/Public Domain

“But soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, then gathered the folk about the pyre of glorious Hector.”

Eos is most often associated with her Homeric epithet “rosy-fingered” Eos Rhododactylos (Ancient Greek: Ἠὼς Ῥοδοδάκτυλος), but Homer also bestows the name of Eos Erigeneia on her in The Odyssey:

“That brightest of stars appeared, Eosphoros, that most often heralds the light of early-rising Dawn (Eos Erigeneia).”

Near the end of Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Athena, wanting to buy Odysseus some time with his wife Penelope after they finally reunited with each other after twenty years, orders Eos not to yoke her two horses, thus delaying the coming of the new day.

“And rose-fingered Dawn would have shone for the weepers had not bright-eyed goddess Athena thought of other things. She checked the long night in its passage, and further, held golden-throned Dawn over Ocean and didn’t let her yoke her swift-footed horses, that bring daylight to men, Lampus and Phaethon, the colts that carry Dawn.”

Hesiod, in Theogony, writes of Eos: “And after these Erigeneia (“Early-born”) bore the star Eosphoros (“Dawn-bringer”), and the gleaming stars with which heaven is crowned.”

Eos, preceded by the Morning Star, is seen as the genetrix of all the stars and planets on the Roman poet Ovid’s monumental work Metamorphoses; her tears are considered to have created the morning dew, personified as Ersa or Herse.

Role of Eos in the Gigantomachy

Eos played a small role in the battle of the giants against the gods in Greek mythology; when the earth goddess Gaia learned of a prophecy that the giants would perish at the hand of a mortal, Gaia sought to find a herb that would protect them.

So Zeus ordered Eos, as well as her siblings Selene (Moon) and Helios (Sun) not to shine, and harvested all of the plant for himself, denying Gaia the chance to make the giants indestructible, according to Apollodorus.

Eos is known in myths as a goddess who fell in love several times. According to the writer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus in his work “Bibliotheca,” it was the jealous Aphrodite who cursed her to be perpetually in love and have an insatiable sexual desire because Eos once had lain with Aphrodite’s sweetheart Ares, the god of war.

This desire caused her to abduct a number of handsome young men.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Calypso complains to Hermes about the male gods taking many mortal women as lovers, but not allowing goddesses to do the same. She brings up as example Eos’s love for the hunter Orion, who was killed by Artemis in Ortygia.

Apollodorus also mentions Eos’ love for Orion, and adds that she brought him to the island of the Greek gods, Delos, where he met Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon, the hunt, the wilderness and chastity.

The handsome man Cleitus was reportedly kidnapped and made immortal by her, according to Homer’s Odyssey.

The goddess of the Dawn also fell in love with and abducted Tithonus, a handsome prince from Troy. She went with a request to Zeus, asking him to make Tithonus immortal for her sake. Zeus then agreed and granted her wish, but Eos forgot to ask for eternal youth as well for her beloved.

For a while, they two lived happily, until Tithonus’ hair started turning gray, and Eos ceased to visit him in bed. But he kept aging, and was soon unable to even move. In the end, Eos locked him up in a chamber, where he withered away, forever a helpless old man. According to the  Homeric Hymn of Aphrodite.

Out of pity, she then turned the unfortunate man into a cicada.

The story of Cephalus, a boy who according to myth was form Athens, had a special appeal for an Athenian audience. His abduction myth element appeared frequently in Attic vase-paintings — and was exported to the wider world outside Greece with them.

In these myths, as related by several writers, including Apollodorus, Pausanias and Ovid, Eos snatched Cephalus against his will when he was hunting and took him to Syria.  Although Cephalus was already married to Procris, Eos bore him three sons, including Phaethon and Hesperus, but he then began pining for Procris.

An unhappy Eos then returned him to his wife, but not before sowing the seeds of doubt in his mind, telling him that it was highly unlikely that Procris had stayed faithful to him this entire time.

Cephalus, troubled by her words, asked Eos to change his form into that of a stranger, in order to secretly test Procris’s love for him. Cephalus, disguised, then propositioned Procris, who at first declined but eventually gave in.

He was hurt by her betrayal, and she left him in shame, but eventually they got back together. This time, however it was Procris’ turn to doubt her husband’s fidelity; while hunting, he would often call upon the breeze (‘Aura’ in Latin, sounding similar to Eos’s Roman equivalent Aurora) to refresh the body.

Upon hearing him call “Aura,” Procris followed and spied on him. Cephalus, mistaking her for a wild animal, threw his spear at her, killing her, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The second-century traveller and historian Pausanias knew of the story of Cephalus’ abduction as well, but interestingly by that time he referred to Eos by the name of Hemera, the goddess of day.

Eos figures in Trojan War

According to Hesiod, Eos had two sons, Memnon and Emathion. Memnon fought with the Trojans in the Trojan War, against Achilles. Pausanias mentions images of Thetis, the mother of Achilles, and Eos begging Zeus on behalf of their sons, in his works.

Achilles triumphed, however, and slew Memnon in battle. Mourning deeply over the death of her son, Eos made the light of her brother, Helios the god of the sun, to fade, and begged Nyx, the goddess of the night, to come out earlier, so she could be able to freely steal her son’s body undetected by the armies, according to Philostratus of Lemnos, in his work “Imagines.”

Eos then asked Zeus to make her son immortal, and he granted her wish. Her image with the dead Memnon across her knees, like Thetis with the dead Achilles are icons that some scholars believe may have inspired the Christian Pietà, with Mary cradling Jesus after the crucifixion.

Eos’ divine horses pull her chariot across sky every day

Eos’ team of horses, which pull her chariot across the sky every day, are called “Firebright” and “Daybright” in the Odyssey. Quintus, in his work “Postomerica,” described her exulting in her heart over the radiant horses (Lampus and Phaëton) that drew her chariot, amidst the bright-haired Horae, the feminine Hours, climbing the arc of heaven and scattering sparks of fire.

Oddly, there are no known temples, shrines, or altars to Eos that are known at this time. However, Ovid seems to allude to the existence of at least two shrines dedicated to her, as he describes them in plural, in a line from the Metamorphoses: “Least I may be of all the goddesses the golden heavens hold – in all the world my shrines are rarest.”

Etruscan versions of Eos

The generative dawn-goddess for the Etruscan peoples was known as “Thesan.” Depictions of her with a young lover became popular in Etruria in the fifth century, most likely inspired by imported Greek vase-paintings.

Though Etruscans preferred to show the goddess as a nurturer (Kourotrophos) rather than an abductor of young men, the late Archaic sculptural acroterion from Etruscan Cære, now in Berlin, showing the goddess in archaic running pose adapted from the Greeks, and bearing a boy in her arms, has commonly been identified as Eos and Cephalus.

Thesan is also depicted on an Etruscan mirror carrying off a young man, whose name is inscribed as “Tinthu.”

The later Roman equivalent of Eos, as noted previously, is Aurora, also a cognate showing the characteristic Latin rhotacism, showing the addition of an “r” in her name. Dawn became associated in Roman cults with Matuta, later known as Mater Matuta.

Aurora was also associated with sea harbors and ports, and had a temple dedicated to her on the Forum Boarium. The Matralia was celebrated every June 11 at that temple in honor of Mater Matuta; this festival was only for women during their first marriage.

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