Tethys in Greek Mythology — The Titan Goddess of the Sea

Tethys in Greek Mythology - The Titan Goddess of the Sea

Who is Tethys in Greek Mythology?

In Greek mythology, Tethys was one of the children of Uranus, the sky god and Gaia, the personification of the earth. She was said to the be titan goddess of the sea, wife to the titan god of the ocean, Oceanus. Her siblings, as told to us by Hesiod in the Theogony were Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Cronus and of course her husband, Oceanus. As mentioned, it was by Oceanus that she would give birth to both the three thousand Potamoi and the three thousand Oceanids, those of which were minor male and female deities respectively.

With the earth being made up of mostly water and with the oceans being such a vast and almost boundless element, it comes as no surprise that the ancient Greeks assigned various deities to govern these very waters.

From smaller river gods and goddesses to the more titular deities that represented the oceans, the Greeks revered many of them, perhaps on the account that the oceans were and still are, relatively unknown to us.

When you consider that much of our ocean is unmapped and many of the waters are still uncharted, it’s easy to see how the ancient Greeks filled the gap in their knowledge with that of the gods and how their imagination allowed for the gods, to not only preside over these unknown areas but also to make them more relatable.

No doubt the oceans were and still are a scary place, but for the Greeks, having a deity watching over them when sailing through these waters would no doubt have given them both courage and relief.

The water gods, including the Oceanids, allowed for the Greeks to understand the waters in which they traversed and perhaps in a way, made the unknown seem more known.

Perhaps one of the most prominent water deities before the likes of Poseidon was Oceanus, the primordial Titan god of the earth-encircling river or ocean.

It was believed that Oceanus was the source of all the earth’s freshwater including rivers, wells, springs and even rain clouds. His wife Tethys, meanwhile, who this article will focus on, was often thought of as distributing these very waters across the earth. Together, the pair would have many children—those who were known as the Potamoi, the gods of the rivers, and the Oceanids, the nymphs of springs and fountains.

Depictions of Tethys in Greek Mythology

Despite being relatively unknown in the mythology, Tethys would be frequently represented during the Roman period, where she appeared to be identified by an inscription of symbols as seen here: ΘΕΘΥΣ.

This symbol is present in several works of ancient art, most notably on black-figure pottery that was popular between the 7th and 5th centuries.

Depictions of Tethys in Greek Mythology - sixth century dinos by the attic vase painter Sophilos

On a more notable piece, the symbol of Tethys appears on an early sixth century dinos by the attic vase painter Sophilos, which portrays the wedding between Peleus and Thetis (as seen above). In this depiction, we can see that Tethys follows her husband Oceanus in a long procession of gods who were invited to the wedding.

Tethys’ role within the mythology - the Gigantomachy

Another piece of art that gives some weight to Tethys’ role within the mythology is from the 2nd century BC frieze from the Pergamon Altar, which was built in Berlin during the reign of King Eumenes II. It depicts the gods fighting the Giants in the Gigantomachy—a war initiated by Gaia against Zeus and the Olympians.

In this piece, we most see Oceanus, but it’s possible that fragments of Tethys can be seen beside her husband, most notably her hand behind his head (as seen above).

With this art, it can be said that both Tethys and Oceanus had fought in the Gigantomachy on the side of Zeus, which is probable given that Oceanus and Tethys had not sided with Cronus during the previous Titanomachy. Instead, both entities appeared to remain neutral, and it is supposed that it may have earned them the leniency of Zeus when the supreme god came to power.

Tethys’ Origin and Family Tree

In the very early centuries of the common era, Tethys and Oceanus could be seen both as a couple and independently in mosaics that decorated baths, pools, and the triclinia—those that were formal dining rooms in Roman buildings.

Often, the goddess could be seen by some rather distinct features including the growing of wings from her forehead or accompanied by a sea creature or sea serpent that twined around her arm.

Tethys’ Origin in the Theogony by Hesiod

As far as the mythology goes, we know that Tethys was not prominently featured. As a first-generation titan, she too was a descendant of Uranus, the primordial sky god and Gaia, the primordial earth goddess.

Her siblings, as told to us by Hesiod in the Theogony were Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Cronus and of course her husband, Oceanus. As mentioned, it was by Oceanus that she would give birth to both the three thousand Potamoi and the three thousand Oceanids, those of which were minor male and female deities respectively.

Yet despite Hesiod’s confirmation that Tethys and Oceanus were the children of Gaia and Uranus, other writers including Homer suggest that it was Tethys and Oceanus who were the primaeval parents and that it was they who gave birth to the other Titans.

Tethys’ Origin in the Iliad by Homer

Passages in the Iliad suggest that Homer was aware of a tradition in which Gaia and Uranus were not the primordial beings, where he tells us of one conversation between Hera and Aphrodite and another conversation between Hera and Zeus. Hera says in both instances,

“I go now to the ends of the generous earth on a visit to Okeanos (Oceanus), whence the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother who brought me up kindly in their own house.” —Homer, The Iliad

Here, we understand that Hera visits both Oceanus and Tethys, but that she rather interestingly refers to them as the deities from whence all other gods sprang from.

In this writing, Homer seems to establish both Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods and does not seem to acknowledge Uranus or Gaia in this section. However, it could also be suggested that Hera recognised both Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods because she was fostered to the Titans for safekeeping during the Titanomachy.

It is believed that Tethys became the nurse of Hera and that much like how the baby Zeus was smuggled away from Cronus, the same was done for Hera.

Tethys’ Origin in the Timaeus by Plato

In the Timaeus—a dialogue by Plato, Plato seeks to align the divergences between Hesiod and Homer here by suggesting that whilst Uranus and Gaia were the primordial beings as typically believed, Oceanus and Tethys were their first and only children.

It was then Oceanus and Tethys who would produce the first-generation Titans in Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe and Cronus, but that beyond this, it was still Ouranus who was in charge, and it was still Ouranus who was overthrown by Cronus.

But in favour of keeping things simple, it might simply be said that in Homer’s account in the Iliad, Hera is simply referring to Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of the gods because they were, in effect, her parents.

The Bond Between Tethys and Hera — The Story of Callisto

The bond between Tethys and Hera is certainly something that’s touched upon in some stories, most notably by Pseudo-Hyginus in the Fabulae, where we are told that Hera sought revenge on the huntress Callisto for having an affair with her husband Zeus.

Zeus and Callisto - Tethys involvement

As the legend goes, Callisto was one of Artemis’ loyal followers and something of a favourite amongst the goddess’ retinue. But because of her proximity to Artemis, it would not be long before she became noticed by the wandering eye of Zeus.

After Zeus had his way with Callisto, Artemis exiled her, and the huntress was forced to wander the forests alone. When Hera learned of what had transpired between Zeus and Callisto, she was said to seek comfort in her foster-mother Tethys, and it was here that she was thought to find guidance in the matter.

To conceal his affair, Zeus transformed Callisto into the constellation of the bear; Ursa Major. But his efforts did not go unseen by the Titan Tethys.

The Ursa Major Constellation (Callisto)
The Ursa Major Constellation (Callisto)

Pseudo-Hyginus tells us specifically in the Fabulae,

“Zeus put Callisto among the number of stars as a constellation called Ursa Major, which does not move from its place, nor does it set. For Tethys, wife of Oceanus and foster mother of Hera forbids its setting in Oceanus.” —Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae

Here, we understand that Tethys was in full support of her foster daughter and sought to not only reveal Zeus’ deceptions but also to prevent Callisto from ever being received by the waters. This was also a means by the ancients to explain why this constellation was never set below the horizon.

In some ideas, it is proposed that Zeus had transformed Callisto into an actual bear, but that Tethys was so wrought with Callisto that she forbade her from ever drinking or bathing in the waters of Oceanus.

Pseudo-Hyginus also confirms this in the Astonimica, telling us,

“Great Bear… This constellation, as many have stated, does not set, and those who desire some reason for this fact say that Tethys, wife of Oceanus, refuses to receive her when the other stars come there to their settling because Tethys was the nurse of Hera, in whose bed Callisto was a concubine.”

In other variations of the story, it is believed that Tethys is the one who transforms Callisto into the bear, to dissuade Zeus from ever advancing on her again. With this idea, Tethys becomes the one who serves as the divine vengeance of Hera and in what may be deemed as an act of love for her foster daughter, seeks to exact punishment upon Callisto for having sullied Hera’s marriage.

The relationship between Hera and Tethys appears to be quite give and take, in that both entities do indeed appear to genuinely help each other.

We know from Homer’s Iliad, in the passage known as the Deception of Zeus, that Hera is shown to be the one coming to the aid of Tethys and that she puts everything on hold to visit her foster parents who are having marital problems.

She tells both Aphrodite and Zeus,

“Since I go now to the ends of the generous earth on a visit to Oceanus, whence the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother who brought me up kindly in their own house, and cared for me and took me from Rhea, at that time when Zeus of the wide brows drove Cronus underneath the earth and the barren water. I shall go and visit these, and resolve their division of discord, since now for a long time they have stayed apart from each other and from the bed of love since rancour has entered their feelings.”

The Story of Tethys and Aesacus

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses meanwhile, we see Tethys’ involvement with the illegitimate son of King Priam, Aesacus—where she is seen to deny him of suicide. The legend tells us that Aesacus once fell in love with the nymph Hesperia.

Aesacus and Hespeia - Tethys involvement

He pursues her through the forest but is reckoned with horror and guilt when a poisonous snake kills her. Unable to bear living with such a reality, Aesacus climbs a tall cliff and throws himself into the sea. Little does he realise, however, that Tethys is watching him and upon seeing him fall towards the water, decides to change him into a diving bird.

Despite his new form, Aescaus is still said to attempt to take his own life by leaping from the cliff, though given his new physiology, is unable to endanger his life in the same way.

Ovid tells us,

“Aesacus mourning the death of his beloved Hesperia flung himself into the sea. In pity, as he fell Tethys received him gently, and as he swam clothed him with feathers; thus, the golden chance of death so much desired was never given.
The lover, outraged to be forced to live against his will, to find his soul that longed to leave its lamentable home restrained, with new wings on his shoulders flew aloft and once more launched himself into the waves. His feathers broke his fall.
In fury then poor Aesacus dived down into the deep trying endlessly to take the road to death.
Love made him lean; his jointed legs are long, and long is his neck, and long his head extends.
He loves the sea; that name of his he keeps, a diver, for he dives into its deep.”

It might be said then that through this, Tethys was most certainly a compassionate and feeling hearted deity, who not only sought to right the wrongs that she saw but also sought to help those in need.

Lessons from the Stories of Tethys

The kindness of Tethys; we see this quite clearly in the tale of Aescaus, where her compassion extends to a total stranger. It would have been quite simple for her to just allow yet another mortal to plunge to his death, but Tethys, having recognised the waste of life this would be, sought to preserve the hurting man from ending his existence.

Whilst it is argued that Aescaus would never find happiness again, given that he still tries to kill himself repeatedly, it certainly shows us the sympathy that Tethys has, in that she wants him to live, even if this is in the form of a bird.

Her tender and gentle persona are more than once noted by Hera who refers to her stepmother as kind and caring and we see how far Tethys is willing to go for Hera, by denying Callisto from ever drinking from her waters or allowing her to descend beyond the horizon.

Her loyalty might also be established here and the idea that Tethys was loyal to a fault might also come into play, in that she doesn’t appear to stop and consider whether Callisto even deserved such a punishment given that it was she who was pursued by Zeus.

One might say that despite her compassion, Tethys could be blinded by her familial ties, and this could lead her to make such drastic decisions to protect the ones that she loved.

Art Sources: Iro Pagis

Scroll to Top