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The Goddess Iris in Greek Mythology

Updated on January 13, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Goddess Iris

It is widely recognised that Hermes was the messenger god from the Greek pantheon; and it is this god’s imagery that is still used today in connection with delivery services. Less widely known though, is the fact that the role of Hermes was duplicated by another deity, this time a female deity, in the form of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow.

Despite being less well known than Hermes, Iris’ role was still a vital one.

The Family of Iris

Iris was a goddess widely talked about in ancient sources, and the likes of Hesiod, in the Theogony, would provide commentary on the goddess’ family.

Iris was said to be a daughter of Thaumas, one of the ancient marine gods, and his wife, Electra, an Oceanid. This parentage would make Iris sister to the three Harpies, Aello, Celaeno and Ocypete.

Electra is also sometimes referred to as a Nephele, a cloud nymph, which is perhaps more appropriate, with Iris being connected with the rainbow, a symbol of connectivity between land and sky.

Iris would be thought of as the wife of Zephyrus, and together the pair were parents to Pothos, a minor deity who became part of Aphrodite’s retinue.

An Allegory of Air

Antonio Palomino (1653–1726) PD-art-100
Antonio Palomino (1653–1726) PD-art-100 | Source

Iris Carrying Water from the Styx

Giovanni Folo; Guy Head Wellcome Images CC-BY-4.0
Giovanni Folo; Guy Head Wellcome Images CC-BY-4.0 | Source

The Role of Iris in Greek Mythology

Iris would take up the role of messenger of the gods, and in fact she performed this role for Zeus, before his son Hermes was even born. As a the messenger of the gods, there was no place which was off limits to Iris, and the goddess was able to travel uninhibited to all areas of the earth, into the deepest recesses of Hades, and to the bottom of the oceans.

Iris was normally depicted as a beautiful maiden, with wings of gold; and these wings allowed Iris to travel faster than anyone else.

As well as the golden wings, Iris would also normally be shown with a winged staff in hand, just like Hermes was also often depicted. Additionally, Iris was also often shown carrying a water pitcher. This pitcher was said to contain water taken from the River Styx, those mortals who perjured themselves would have to drink from the pitcher, resulting in an instantaneous deep sleep. Deities who drank from the pitcher would be left unable to speak for seven years.

Iris would often be thought of as the means by which the goddess Hera communicated her wishes to mankind, although in ancient tales, a direct link with the goddess is rarely expressed.

Iris and Morpheus

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) PD-art-100
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) PD-art-100 | Source

Stories of Iris in Ancient Greece

Titanomachy - The goddess Iris would appear in the works of many ancient writers, and although today no complete story of the Titianomachy remains, Iris was said to have taken part in it.

The Titanomachy was the war between the Titans, and Zeus and his siblings. At the outbreak of war Iris sided with Zeus, and during the ten year conflict would act as a messenger between the gods and their allies, the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes.

Iliad – Iris was prominent in Homer’s Iliad, and it was the rainbow goddess who would aide Aphrodite’s escape from the battlefield, after the goddess was injured during a fight with Diomedes, the Greek hero.

The Argonauts – Iris would make an appearance in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. During the voyage to Colchis, the Argo would arrive at the home of Phineas, the Thracian king being tormented by the Harpies.

A plan was concocted that would see Zetes and Cailas, the sons of Boreas, drive off the Harpies, but Iris came and asked Jason to ensure that her sisters were not harmed in the rescue of Phineas; something which Jason agreed to.

Heracles – The rainbow goddess would also be a minor figure in the life story of Heracles, as Iris was said to have been present when the goddess Madness caused the Greek hero to kill his wife and sons.

Iris has all but been forgotten, and the rise in importance of the Hellenic gods of Mount Olympus, saw many deities marginalised. Thus it was that Hermes took over the role of messenger of the gods, and the male god is remembered, whilst the female deity is forgotten.

Iris Supporting Aphrodite

George Hayter (1792–1871) PD-art-100
George Hayter (1792–1871) PD-art-100 | Source

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