Rumor, Roses, and Revenants: Ten Unusual and Obscure Greek Deities 

“Fabulous party. You know, I haven’t seen this much love in a room since Narcissus discovered himself.” – Hermes, Hercules 

All of you probably thought I had forgotten about the Greeks when I did my entries on lesser-known Egyptian and Roman gods and goddesses, but never you fret, dear readers. You might think you know all the Greek gods because you know the Olympians, a handful of Titans, and some minor nymphs. But the ancient Greeks had a whole football stadium’s-worth of demigods and anthropomorphized spirits that don’t usually get much press, so this week let’s give them their moment in the sun.

10) The Hyperboreioi

The Hyperboreioi were formally addressed as the Nymphai Hyperboreioi (Greek: Νύμφαι Υπερβόρειοι), that is, the Nymphs of Hyperborea. We generally think of the Greek nymphs as being connected to specific environments of the natural world, but the Hyperboreioi were three sisters who ruled over different aspects of archery. Hekaerge represented distancing, Loxo represented trajectory, and Oupis represented aim. They were daughters of Boreas, the god of the north wind and winter, and their home was Hyperborea (“Beyond the North Wind”), a mythical kingdom he supposedly ruled. While you might think such a kingdom would be cold and barren, perhaps because Boreas himself was the fecund sire of many mythical offspring, Hyperborea was described by both Herodotus and later Pliny the Elder as a place of perfect happiness whose mortal inhabitants lived superhuman lifespans.

Because of their connection with archery, the favored weapon of the Olympians Apollo and Artemis, the Hyperboreioi are credited with raising up their worship on Delos, the island the twins were born on. Oupis is described as having brought the necessary offering to the goddess Eileithyia to procure her assistance in the birth. Like many nymphs, they had a special connection to Artemis in particular and their names were often used as epithets of the goddess herself.

[Boreas]

9) Pheme

Pheme (Greek: Φήμη) was the anthropomorphic spirit of fame, but because her name comes from the Greek word ϕάναι (simply “to speak”), pheme can encompass both “fame” and “rumor” in the language. In her benevolent form, Pheme gives positive renown, but in her malignant form, she spreads rumors and scandal. Supposedly the goddess herself, reported to be the daughter of either the earth mother Gaia or the spirit Elpis (Hope), is known as the biggest gossip in the Greek world, gleefully prying into the affairs of gods and mortals alike. Once apprised of a juicy story, she would repeat it until it echoed in everyone’s ears, at first as nothing more than a whisper, but growing louder with each repetition. Definitely making her the patron goddess of your social media feeds. But in spite of her meddlesome nature, Homer also names her as a messenger of Zeus, which makes sense as the king of the gods is omniscient, so the renown of all, good and bad, would be known to him.

In most art, Pheme is depicted as a woman with (appropriately) wings and a trumpet, but Virgil gives us a delightfully graphic description of her (as her Roman equivalent Fama) in the fourth book of the Aeneid as a creature with multiple eyes, ears, and tongues fluttering around on multiple wings, with “her feet on the ground, and her head in the clouds, making the small seem great and the great seem greater.”

[As the angels of the Bible would say, be not afraid…]

Perhaps befitting the essence of notoriety, Pheme would outlive her religio-civic Greek roots to tread the boards of the stage well into the Baroque Period as the stock personification character Rumor, who would often serve as a point of chorus or exposition particularly in Renaissance plays. A good example of this comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, where Rumor delivers the play’s prologue, reminding the audience of what had happened in Part 1 and setting the stage for what is to come, just like any gossip in London.English novelist Thomas Hardy would do a send up to this style in his Napoleonic-era closet play The Dynasts (written 1904-8) where Rumor and a chorus of similar personifications watch and interact with the historical characters. Rumor has some wonderful scenes where they gatecrash fancy dress balls, chat up the unsuspecting partygoers, and then disappear into the night while their victims stand around basically asking, “Who was that strange, super-knowledgeable person just now?”

8) Gēras

Gēras (Greek: Γῆρας) was the personification of old age and was, appropriately, depicted as a tiny, shriveled old man. Hesiod lists him as one of the many children of Nyx, the primordial goddess of night (Theogony 211–255), and Cicero adds that his father was Erebus, the god of darkness (De Natura Deorum 3.17). Many of these personified deities were paired as dualities and Gēras’ double was Hebe, the goddess of youth. Gēras doesn’t have much of a surviving mythic presence, but most of his illustrations come from vases like the one below, where he is shown in the company of Heracles. It seems that we have lost the story that these vases are alluding to, but it is also possible that showing these two together is tied back to Hebe, who becomes the wife of Heracles once the hero is raised to godhood.

[Gēras (you can see the foot of Heracles’ lion skin cloak in front of him)]

Aside from his rather pathetic appearance, Gēras also had more positive connotations in ancient Greek culture. Gēras as a concept represented the traditional idea of the accumulated wisdom of a respected elder, it being assumed that if a man was wise enough to have lived so long, his stores of the other valued Greek character traits of kleos (glory) and arete (excellence), would naturally be correspondingly high. This is reflected in a similar word, géras (γέρας), which loosely means the authority a Greek man wielded through the renown of his name and his descendent as settled in battle. This was what the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey are worrying about passing down to their sons. Yet another slightly different word, gĕras (γῆρας), tied the idea of old age to the sloughed skin of a snake, emphasizing this idea of old age as a part of community renewal and continuity through the generations.

7) Empusa

Empusa (Greek: Ἔμπουσα), was a sleep goddess, who like all nocturnal gods in Greek cosmology, was a chthonic deity associated with the underworld. She was a shapeshifting phantom (or sometimes a host of phantoms) commanded by Hekate, the goddess of crossroads and witchcraft, and sometimes considered her daughter. Like many things that go bump in the night, Empusa’s origins are obscure, but she was often depicted as having only one leg, which might be a folk etymology from empous(έμπούς)—“one foot”. This leg is described as being made of metal (brass, bronze, or copper), but sometimes also as that of a donkey or another hoofed animal.

[Hekate]

Most of the ancient source material we have for Empusa comes from Aristophanes’ play, The Frogs, where she appears to Xanthias, the slave of the god Dionysus, as the pair journey to the underworld, though the text leaves room for the idea that Xanthias is only pretending to see her as a practical joke, the way you might try to frighten a friend by claiming to see a ghost. Later on in antiquity, Empusa begins to function more like a succubus, and she is described by writers like Lucius Flavius Philostratus in the second century AD as a demon disguised as a beautiful woman who seduces young men so she can eventually eat them while they sleep (possibly by causing sleep paralysis). In his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus states that the way to ward off Empusa is to hurl insults at her until she runs away.

But Empusa is interesting because she has maintained a foothold on the Greek psyche up through the modern era, where she continues to reside as a folklore creature. Folklorists have collected descriptions of “an extremely slender woman with multiple feet, ‘one of bronze, one a donkey’s foot, one an ox’s, one a goat’s, and one human’”, which alludes to Empusa’s weird feet and her ability to shape shift. However, she is generally conflated with the gello, an ancient female demon who caused infertility and harm to children.

6) Hedylogos

Hedylogos (Greek: Ἡδύλογος) is one of the Erotes, Aphrodite’s squad of seven minor love gods that form her sexy entourage. Three of them are fairly well-known: her son Eros, the inter-sex Hermaphroditus, and Hymen, the god of marriage. But the other four cover some aspect of love and courtship (like Anteros, the god of requited love—the best kind). Hedylogos, whose name means “pleasing words”, is literally the god of sweet talk and flattery. Which you know also makes him the god of pickup lines and possibly pickup artists, if negging secretly counts as flattery.

Like the other Erotes, Hedylogos is usually depicted in art as handsome nude youths with wings. The individual Erotes would slowly coalesce around Eros as he became the Roman Cupid, and by the Renaissance Hedylogos and the others would become unidentified cupids or putti rather than separate deities. But Hedylogos arguably lives on in every vapid Valentine’s Day card you’ve ever sent or groan-inducing pickup pun you’ve experienced.

5) Atë

Atë (Greek: Ἄτη) was the goddess of mischief and delusion. As one of the many children of the troublemaking Eris, goddess of discord, Atë was seen as the personification of the reckless impulse that led men to make rash decisions that would ultimately lead to their ruin. Hesiod records that Eris gave birth to Atë parthenogenetically (Theogony, 230), but Homer says that Atë is also the eldest daughter of Zeus (Iliad, 19.91), along with the Litae (prayers).

Despite possibly being another one of Zeus’ offspring born on the wrong side of the sheets, one of the few mythological story we have of Atë is of her helping Hera. Atë uses her powers to persuade Zeus to swear an oath that the man born on that day would be the lord of all the men around him. Hera then, as usual, detains the goddess Eileithyia from helping with the birth of Heracles and the Argive (being Hera’s favored people) prince Eurystheus is born instead. Zeus is so angry at Atë that he flings her from the heavens by her hair and banishes her to the mortal world. There she is said to “tread upon the heads of men rather than the earth”, filling their minds with delusions and generally wrecking havoc. Her sisters, the Litae, attempt to rein her in, but the Litae are described as hobbling, old women and Atë, much like Pheme, is fleet-footed and easily outruns them. Which is why the speed of trouble always seems to outstrip thoughts and prayers.

Atë was a favorite spirit of Shakespeare in his plays, being name-dropped in Much Ado About NothingLove’s Labours LostKing John, and perhaps most famously, in Julius Caesar, where Mark Antony places Atë at the side of Caesar’s vengeful spirit as the dead dictator cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of war.

4) Prophasis

I can’t pretend that even by the low, low standards of the anthropomorphic Greek spirits that Prophasis (Greek: Πρόφασις) has a lot of personality, but how can I not include the goddess of excuses on this list? How often have you prayed to her and not even known it? 

Prophasis is the daughter of the Titan Epimetheus, the god of afterthought or hindsight (he’s the brother of Prometheus, who is the god of foresight). It is unclear from the surviving mythos whether she is also the daughter of either of Epimetheus’ canonical wives, the infamous Pandora, or the Oceanid Ephyra. But it is easy to imagine that she is the full sister of Epimetheus’ daughter Metameleia, a goddess whose name means roughly “regret of what has occurred”, an experience her foolish, blundering father probably felt often. Luckily, Prophasis would be there to help concoct the perfect, rambling explanation for whatever disaster Epimetheus had created for his clever brother to mop up.

3) Palaestra

Palaestra (Greek: Παλαίστρα) was a goddess created by the Greeks to provide an etiological source for the name given to their wrestling schools (same as hers). Because of this, she is seen as the goddess of wrestling, and two separate myths sprung up to trace this source—one where she is the lover of the messenger god Hermes, and one where she is his daughter.

In the first myth, Palaestra is the mortal daughter of Choricus, the king of Arcadia, who invents the sport of wrestling after enjoying the sight of his two sons grappling with each other. Palaestra divulges this to her lover, Hermes, who makes some improvements to the rules and then gifts the sport to all people. Choricus and his sons apparently wanted to keep this manly game to themselves, so they set out to punish the god. The boys find Hermes asleep and dismember him, which is supposed to explain why the god’s protective hermae totems have no limbs. More annoyed at this than anything else, Hermes complains to Zeus, who dismembers Choricus in retaliation. Though apparently Hermes’ sore feelings don’t extend to Palaestra, for whom he still names the art of wrestling for.

[Herm]

In the second myth, Palaestra is Hermes’ daughter and she invents wrestling as a gift for men to enjoy during times of peace. But the goddess is skilled in her own invention and in his Images, Philostratus of Lemnos describes her fearless androgyny in great detail: “The figure of Palaestra, if it be compared with a boy, will be that of a girl; but if it be taken for a girl, it will seem to be a boy. For her hair is too short even to be twisted into a knot; the eye might be that of either sex; and the brow indicates disdain for both lovers and wrestlers… She cares for nothing feminine; hence she does not even wish to have white arms, and apparently even disapproves of the Dryads because they stay in the shade to keep their skin fair; nay, as one who lives in the vales of Arkadia, she begs Helios for colour, and he brings it to her like a flower and reddens the girl with moderate heat.” Much like Atalanta, Palaestra is presented self-sufficient in her own skin, and very differently from the typical depiction of Greek women in myth, even the goddesses. Certainly this is a Palaestra who wouldn’t have let her family threaten Hermes without a fight.

2) The Daemones Ceramici 

The Daemones Ceramici (Greek: Δαίμονες Κεραμικοί), are another little group that I had to include on this list just for their delightful weirdness. Because, basically, they’re pottery gremlins. Their collective name means, as you might have deduced, “ceramic demons”, and they were blamed for all the various calamities those artisans experienced on the job and their individual names reflect their personal brands of chaos. Syntribos was “The Shatterer”, Smaragos was “The Smasher”, Asbetos was “The Charrer”, Omodamos was “The Crudebake”, and Sabaktes was simply “The Destroyer” (though his name could also be translated as “Crasher”).

One of the Homeric Hymns is a song for potters, and it recounts what this fivesome could do if provoked in what feels like the world’s oldest Etsy review: “Potters, if you will give me a reward, I will sing for you. Come, then, Athene, with hand upraised over the kiln. Let the pots and all the dishes turn out well and be well fired; let them fetch good prices and be sold in plenty in the market, and plenty in the streets. Grant that the potters may get great gain and grant me so to sing to them. But if you turn shameless and make false promises, then I call together the destroyers of kilns, Syntribos and Smaragos and Asbetos and Sabaktes and Omodamos who can work this craft much mischief. Come all of you and sack the kiln-yard and the buildings: let the whole kiln be shaken up to the potter’s loud lament. As a horse’s jaw grinds, so let the kiln grind to powder all the pots inside. And you, too, daughter of the Sun, Circe the witch, come and cast cruel spells; hurt both these men and their handiwork. Let Chiron also come and bring many Centaurs—all that escaped the hands of Heracles and all that were destroyed: let them make sad havoc of the pots and overthrow the kiln, and let the potters see the mischief and be grieved; but I will gloat as I behold their luckless craft. And if anyone of them stoops to peer in, let all his face be burned up, that all men may learn to deal honestly.

1) Harpocrates

Last but not least for this list we have Harpocrates (Greek: Ἁρποκράτης), the god of silence, confidentiality, and secrets. Which is appropriate, because Harpocrates himself has a secret, and that’s that you all are already familiar with him…

[Surprise!]

Yes, Harpocrates is a Ptolemaic version of the Egyptian god Horus, the way that Serapis is the Hellenistic version of Osiris. Technically, Harpocrates is a Greek version of Horus the Child specifically (the Greek is a gloss of the young god’s Egyptian name Heru-pa-khered), an iteration of the god representing the newborn sun at dawn before Khepri would begin to raise it into the sky. In Egyptian art, Horus the Child is always depicted as a young boy with the sidelock of youth wearing the double crown and placing his forefinger in his mouth in the way children are wont to do. This depiction was so static that it became the hieroglyph for “child” in the Egyptian language. That said, the Greeks and Romans came along, saw Horus the Child’s infantile hand gesture, thought he was holding his finger to his lips in a “shushing” motion, and hilariously assumed he was the god of silence. For example, here’s our boy Ovid in the Metamorphoses: “Upon her Isis’ brow stood the crescent moon-horns, garlanded with glittering heads of golden grain, and grace of royal dignity; and at her side the baying dog Anubis, dappled Apis, sacred Bubastis, and the god who holds his finger to his lips for silence sake.” (9:688 – 9:692)

[Horus the Child]

This connection to secrecy was furthered by Horus’ mom, Isis’, association with the Greek Aphrodite. It was said that Aphrodite/Isis gave a rose (one of her symbols) to Harpocrates as a bribe to keep her indiscretions quiet. Because of this, roses became associated with secrecy and the Latin phrase sub rosa (“under the rose”) comes from this Hellenistic root. And knowing that the Egyptians sometimes referred to Horus as “The Distant One”, perhaps the Greeks had it right and the tight-lipped Horus was actually the perfect avatar of reticence.

[I don’t have lips, kharsheret…]

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