Who is Asteria in Greek Mythology?
In Greek mythology, Asteria (or Asterie meaning ‘of the stars’, or ‘starry one’) was a daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe and sister to Leto. Asteria was the Titan goddess of falling stars and night-time divinations such as oneiromancy (by dreams) and astrology (by stars). According to Hesiod, she was the mother of Hecate (Hekate), the goddess of witchcraft, by the Titan Perses.
We understand that after the fall of the titans, in the great war of the Titanomachy, that saw Zeus and his Olympian siblings seize control of the world, the titans were cast into the void known as Tartarus.
Yet, not all of the titans were condemned to such a fate, with such titans as Atlas being condemned to hold the heavens from the earth, an arduous job previously split between the Titan brothers as mentioned earlier.
There was also Prometheus and Epimetheus; those who chose to align with Zeus during the war and thus were spared of such condemnation, though the two brothers did later earn punishments but other transgressions outside of the war.
Interestingly, of all the titans who endured the punishment of Zeus, most if not all appear to have been of the male variety. The female titans, on the other hand, the Titanesses take a far less prominent role in mythology and appear to have gone somewhat overlooked, if not for the appetite of Zeus.
Known for his advances on the ladies and his, shall we say, tenacious pursuit of them, it would not be beyond Zeus to try his luck with a Titaness. In today’s article, we’ll look at how Zeus would shoot his shot upon a deity who, to be quite frank, wasn’t having any of it—Asteria.
The Origin of Asteria
Asteria, the titan goddess of falling stars and in some cases, the night-time goddess of divinations, is perhaps known more for her birthing of the more famous goddess Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. But it was believed by the ancient Greeks that Asteria echoed much of her daughter’s exploits in her own sorcery, such as appearing to men in dreams or spelling messages for them in the stars.
It may be the case that she adopted this ability from her father, the titan Coeus. He was the god of the northern axis of heaven, that which all the constellations revolved around. She was also the daughter of the Titaness phoebe. Though connections between the two appear to be scarce.
It is interesting to note that Phoebe would also give birth to Leto, the sister of Asteria. Both sisters would eventually be pursued by Zeus.
Hesiod tells us in the Theogony that Asteria was also the wife of Perses—a titan who would come to be known as a god of destruction and whom she would bear her daughter Hecate to. We are told,
Zeus’ Advances on Asteria
Whilst Hecate appears to be Asteria’s only child, there do exist some rarer accounts that Asteria was at some point successfully courted by Zeus and that she was impregnated with a boy who would become the fourth Heracles. But as far as the more accepted mythology goes, she had caught Zeus’s eye after the Titanomachy, and perhaps, after her husband had been cast into Tartarus, Zeus had fallen in love with her.
Tradition tells us that Asteria was an inhabitant of Olympus. Once she became aware of Zeus’s advances or at least had become sick of them, she plotted to escape from him. The nature of his pursuit is never really said to us, but given Zeus’s reputation, we can agree he was persistent and that No didn’t mean No; it just meant Not Yet.
One day, to escape Zeus’s advances, Asteria transformed into a quail and flew off into the sky. In some versions, Zeus had already grabbed Asteria. To escape from his unyielding embrace, she changed into the quail and fled.
But far be it from Zeus to let a bird getaway—no pun intended—he too transformed into a bird and gave chase. Realizing that Zeus would never give up on his chase of her, she dived into the sea where she metamorphized into the island now known as Ortigia in Italy—Ortigia having originated from the ancient Greek word Ortyx, meaning quail.
Other ideas propose that Asteria had become the island known as Delos, which some belief was another name for the island of Ortigia. It is also argued that there were many islands known as Ortigia, so with that, it can be difficult to pinpoint geographically where in the ocean that Asteria had transformed.
The Bibliotheca by Pseudo-Apollodorus tells us,
As seen from this part of the text, Asteria successfully evaded Zeus by transforming herself into an island. Still, her sister Leto was not so lucky. We understand that Zeus was able to father children with her and that for their union, she was hounded by Zeus’s jealous and vengeful wife, Hera.
Leto and Asteria
Some might say here then that because Leto found sanctuary on Delos or Ortigia. Asteria provided safety for her sister to give birth to her children, Artemis and Apollo. This would provide some notion that despite being an island, the Titaness still had consciousness and perceived the world around her. Either that or Leto’s arrival upon Delos was simply a stroke of coincidence and irony.
According to various Homeric hymns, conversations between Leto and the island of Delos were thought to have taken place. Leto addresses Delos and asks her to become the abode of her son Apollo and for her to make him a rich temple that men far and wide will come to worship.
She promises Delos that Delos will become rich with cattle and plants and will be the home to many great visitors as a result of this agreement. Something that was not the case at the time, for Delos was thought to be rough and rugged terrain.
It might be said that this resulted from the urgency in which asteria transformed into the island and that the barren land was a representation of the circumstances that forced her to make such a decision.
In response to Leto’s request, Delos rejoices and promises to provide a safe haven for her nephew’s birth. Though she does express her concerns about Apollo resenting her, the environment in which he will be born will be an island devoid of life.
She fears that Apollo will overturn her and cast her down to the depths of the sea because of her hard rocky soil, where she will be lost forever. Therefore, she asks Leto to swear before the gods that Apollo will build a glorious temple here first, to become an oracle for men. For that would make the land of Delos genuinely renowned.
To this, Leto agrees. We are told that Delos is delighted when Apollo is born, where she is sometimes described as being his nurse and the first to recognize his power as a god.
The ancient Greek poet Pindar also tells us that after Asteria had become the island of Delos, the island was at the mercy of the elements and was victim to hostile winds and waves. Yet, it became a calm and tranquil place the moment that Leto stepped foot on it. He tells us in the processional song of Delos,
Zeus’ Frustration Towards Rejection and Poseidon’s Advances
According to the Fabulae—thought to be written by 2nd century Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus, Zeus became frustrated with rejection. Upon Asteria’s transformation into a quail, he did catch her—but instead threw her into the sea himself. We are told,
In this version, Zeus demonstrates the traits of a mad lover who cannot handle rejection. Unlike the usual accounts, the rejections do not fuel him to try harder. Instead, the hurt he feels manifests in him throwing Asteria away.
In any case, it would appear that regardless of the version, Asteria was able to escape copulation with Zeus. But this did not mean the chase was over. According to the epic Greek poem Dionysiaca, once Asteria had dived into the ocean, Poseidon took up the pursuit. For he too had become infatuated by her. The poem tells us,
This links in quite well with the idea from the Fabulae, with Zeus being the one to cast Asteria into the ocean. Zeus’s pride saw him no longer desire the Titaness. So she was momentarily free before catching the eye of Poseidon.
There, it can be said that she had no intention of changing herself into an island, now that she was free of Zeus. But out of desperation as a drowning bird, she had no choice in an effort to keep Poseidon away from her.
In this, the tale becomes more tragic because it seems Asteria’s hand was forced. She had to ultimately sacrifice herself to protect against two of the biggest womanizers from the pantheon.
Heroism of Asteria
However, Asteria can also be seen as quite heroic and honourable, for she outwits both of the Olympians and denies the pair of them of what they really want—something few others have ever gotten away with. In fact, some might say she shows even more bravery in her offering of the sanctuary to Leto, which comes despite Hera’s vengeance.
Callimachus, an ancient Greek poet, tells us in a hymn to Delos that the other islands were so afraid of incurring Hera’s anger that they refused to let Leto step foot on them and found it in themselves to run away with the tide. Yet, Asteria—as Delos—has sympathy for Leto as we are told,
But we are also told here that Iris, the messenger goddess reported to Hera and told her of what Asteria had done, telling her,
As you might imagine, Hera was furious and continues her condemnation against Leto for going to such extreme and, in her eyes, disgraceful measures to give birth to Zeus’s child. Yet, she does not blame asteria and even goes as far as to empathize with what was once a woman who had incurred her husband’s interest. We are told,
She deems Asteria wrong for helping Leto, but she cannot bring herself to punish the island, for asteria had not slept with Zeus when pursued and instead had given her life to escape.
In a way, Hera respects Asteria and spares her for her integrity in choosing to live in the waters alone as an island rather than befell her marriage.
Asteria may not have had a rich part to play in her more human form upon Olympus, other than escaping Zeus. Still, her role as the island of Delos would give rise to one of Apollo’s most popular and most worshipped deities. In fact, with Leto’s promise fulfilled, Delos would become a hallowed place and would frequent travellers from all over the Greek islands who wished to pay homage to their god.
As a goddess of dreams, she was also thought to have been worshipped amongst the ancients of Delos as Brizo—a goddess known to aid in the interpretation of one’s dreams.
It’s no stretch to say that Asteria was a courageous and heroic Titan. Still, she can also be regarded as a protective sister, for she risks everything, including imminent destruction by Hera, to provide sanctuary to Leto and her unborn son.
Furthermore, she proves to be a goddess who is not afraid of making hard choices, whether this is diving into the ocean, sacrificing her form in favour of an island or defying the more powerful gods and goddesses for what she believed was right.
Featured Image Source: Carlos-Quevedo.