Friday, January 3, 2014

TFBT: Nephele the Cloud Goddess

Nephele was the cloud goddess, because in Ancient Greek literature, she is the only goddess referred to as a cloud and the only cloud to be given a name.  In fact she was a nymph; an Oceanide, one of the three thousand daughters of the Titan Oceanus.   (Aristophanes, Clouds 264) 

If the Ocean is her father you might think that Nephele was a goddess of the briny deep, best represented by the deep swell and breaking wave.  But, to our surprise the ancients thought of Father Oceanus as the great freshwater river surrounding the land masses.  He was the source of all the springs that pushed from the bountiful earth and all the sweet rain that fell from heaven. 

Many of Nephele’s sisters proudly bore names reminiscent of the clouds at sunset like Ianthe; violet, Electra; amber, Rhode; rose and Chryseis; golden.  (ref.  Among her sisters were Metis; the goddess of wisdom and Styx by whom the gods swore their greatest oaths.   They famously visited their cousin Prometheus during this imprisonment.  (Aeschylus Prometheus Bound)  Many oceanides were the eponymous nymphs of the countryside about their sacred spring and married the founding father of local myth.  Hence, Nephele ended up wedding Athamas, King in Boeotia. 

Add The Oceanides visiting Prometheus
by Sir Joseph Noëlcaption

Many goddesses had no interest in raising mortal children, so like Aphrodite (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite) and the Nereid Thetis (Iliad) she left her children behind.  Unfortunately, she left them in care of Athamas' next wife who wished to get rid of them.  Nephele, found out, sent a monster to rescue them; a winged ram with golden fleece which carried them away.   

Another story about Nephele involves a mortal king named Ixion. Ixion slew his father-in-law, left his wife and young son Pirithous and fled to Olympus for purification by Zeus.  In those days, such fugitives stayed with the king who purified him and became one of his warriors. 

It escaped no one’s notice that hot-blooded Ixion developed a fancy for Zeus’ wife Hera.  To test out the theory Zeus disguised Nephele as wife and provided an opportunity of Ixion to betray his lust.  Ixion immediately raped Nephele and just as immediately was tossed into Hades for endless punishment.  As Deborah Lyons points out in Gender and Immortality,The beds of the gods are always fruitful.   So, Nephele gave birth again, this time to Centaurus, who was either a centaur or the father of the centaurs.  In either case the centaurs became bitter foes with their brother Pirithous.

There is one more adventure Nephele might have taken part in.  The lyric poet Stesichorus of Sicily wrote an insulting poem about Helen of Troy around 600 BC.  As a result Helen blinded him and sent a seer to explain the truth about her life and the Trojan war.  He regained his sight when he rewrote the poem, explaining that Helen never actually visited Troy.  Instead the gods fashioned a phantom to stand in for Helen while she slumbered away the ten years in Egypt awaiting her husband.  Robert Graves in The Greek Myths, says the phantom was fashioned from a cloud.  

 Could it be that the Achaeans and Trojans fought and died for Nephele?

  Image thanks to NYPL Digital Gallery


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