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One of the most enigmatic Greek divinities is Nyx, the primordial goddess of the Night. In Hesiod’s Theogeny she was a child of Chaos, but, in other texts, Nyx was present at (or before) creation and had no parents.  She is rarely mentioned in classical texts, but the few times she does appear are noteworthy.  Some of her children include Death (Thanatos), Sleep (Hypnos), Mockery (Momus), Dreams (Morpheus), and the Fates (Moirae)–they represent various slantwise forces which even the Olympian gods are subject to.

Nyx is mentioned in Chapter XIV of Homer’s Illiad, when the sleep god Hypnos refuses to carry out Hera’s bidding.  Hypnos describes the past results of putting Zeus to sleep (against Zeus’ will) and relates how his mother saved him:

“Jove was furious when he awoke, and began hurling the gods about all over the house; he was looking more particularly for myself, and would have flung me down through space into the sea where I should never have been heard of any more, had not Night who cows both men and gods protected me. I fled to her and Jove left off looking for me in spite of his being so angry, for he did not dare do anything to displease Night. And now you are again asking me to do something on which I cannot venture.” [Forgive the Roman names—I used the Johnson translation for ease of citation and copying.  Also, obviously, Nyx is called “Night” as she is in the rough Aristophanes quote below. I’ll try to find some prettier translations later.]

Nyx is also mentioned in Orphic cult poetry (certain mystery cult poems were attributed to the demigod Orpheus) where she is portrayed as a bird/woman with black wings who first created the universe.  She dwells in a cave at the edge of the Cosmos. With her in the eternal darkness is Kronos, Zeus’ father, who was savagely mutilated by his son. Kronos is unconscious, drunk on magical honey, and he mutters prophecies which Nix then chants.  Outside the cave is Zeus’ nursemaid, Adrasteia, who acted as mother for the king of the gods during his boyhood.  Adrasteia keens and beats a cymbal to Nyx’s chanting and the entire universe subtly moves to the rhythm of her cymbal.

Aristophanes alludes to the Orphic mystery poetry in a chorus from his play “The Birds”.  The chorus is sung by birds who have a different take on creation.  In their interpretation, night is a bird and they are descended from her via love and chaos.  Here is the relevant portion of their song:

…At the start,
was Chaos, and Night, and pitch-black Erebus,
and spacious Tartarus. There was no earth, no heaven,
no atmosphere. Then in the wide womb of Erebus,
that boundless space, black-winged Night, first creature born,
made pregnant by the wind, once laid an egg. It hatched,
when seasons came around, and out of it sprang Love—
the source of all desire, on his back the glitter
of his golden wings, just like the swirling whirlwind.
In broad Tartarus, Love had sex with murky Chaos.
From them our race was born—our first glimpse of the light
not before Love mixed all things up. But once they’d bred
and blended in with one another, Heaven was born,
Ocean and Earth—and all that clan of deathless gods.
Thus, we’re by far the oldest of all blessed ones,
for we are born from Love. There’s lots of proof for this.
We fly around the place, assisting those in love—
[Translation by Ian Johnston]

Although a few small temples and cults to Nyx existed, she was not often worshiped openly in Greece (nor, for that matter, were her children). However Nyx was in the background of many other god’s temples and ceremonies as a statue or a sacred phrase.  Around her name and mythos was an impalpable shroud of ambiguity.  To the Greeks, Nyx was older and stranger than the gods they cared about and worshiped–she was the first and original outsider.

"Nyx" by Gustave Moreau (ca. 1880)

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