Who is Iris in Greek Mythology?
In Greek mythology, Iris is the personification of the rainbow and (for example, in Homer’s Iliad) a messenger of the gods. She was the daughter of Thaumas and the ocean nymph Electra, according to the Greek poet Hesiod. Iris was a celestial messenger as well as a personification of the rainbow.
Continuing the series where we explore some of the lesser mentioned deities of Greek mythology, today we’ll be looking at Iris, or as the ancient Greeks referred to her as Íris—the goddess that many considered to be the personification of the rainbow.
The Role of Iris in Greek Mythology
The role Iris played in Greek mythology was like that of Hermes, a messenger to the gods of Olympus. She was often seen as the handmaiden and personal messenger of the goddess Hera.
The Family of Iris
Iris was the daughter of the sea god Thaumas, a descendant of Gaia and Pontus, and her mother was the Oceanid Electra. In some tales, Iris was married to one of the four seasonal gods of the wind, Zephyrus or Zephyr as we know him in English, and together they had one child Pothos, one of the gods of love.
Some conflicting accounts believe Zephyrus instead married Clarisse, the goddess of flowers and greenery.
Association of Iris and Rainbow
To the ancient Greeks who inhabited the coastal areas, the rainbow was seen to span the entire distance between cloud and sea, they believed that Iris would carry water from the sea to replenish the clouds and thus causing rain. This led to Iris also being associated with the sky in the sea as well as the rainbow.
The Appearance of Iris
It’s believed that Iris travel along the rainbow when she was carrying messages from the gods to mortal men, often being shown and carrying a jar filled with water from the river Styx that she would give to those who were guilty of crimes, placing them into a deep slumber. In some other accounts, the jar was used to serve nectar to the gods.
The depictions of Iris in ancient Greek artwork are almost identical to Hebe, but Iris was almost always seen standing beside Zeus and Hera. Some records suggest that Iris was the twin sister of the Titaness Arce (a goddess of the faded rainbow invented later) as she’s known in Greek. Together they were thought to symbolize the rainbow.
The Story of Iris and Arce (the twin sister)
The two sisters were known for their use of the rainbow when carrying messages, but the easiest way to distinguish between them was their wings. Iris’s wings were golden, and Arce’s was iridescent.
These sisters were somewhat considered to be mortal enemies, with Iris being the messenger to the gods of Olympus and Arce to the Titans. During the war of the Titanomachy, they found themselves on opposite sides. Unfortunately for Arce, she came across a rooster in the wall and he tore her wings from her back rendering her useless and severing the Titans’ line of communication.
Outside of being described as an errand-running goddess, Iris doesn’t have much distinct mythology and doesn’t feature in many stories. She was however one of the goddesses that were present during Leto’s labour of Artemis and Apollo; it was iris who convinced the goddess of childbirth Eileithyia (Ilithyia) to assist Leto without the knowledge of Hera.
Iris’s role in Greek mythology as a messenger to the gods is often overshadowed as it was Hermes who was considered the predominant messenger to the gods, but even so, she still played a role in the war between the Titans and the Olympians.
The two sisters choosing opposite sides during the war gives us quite an interest in dynamics and we can see ultimately that Iris’s choice was the correct one.
It’s very hard to dislike Iris because we essentially have another deity who is more than happy just to perform their role with minimal fuss and no drama, and after all, who doesn’t like a rainbow.
Art Credits: Wikimedia, Sakimichan