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The Graeae in Greek Mythology

Updated on February 17, 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 Three Graeae from Greek Mythology

The idea of grouping three female figures together was a common one in Greek mythology; with the three Gorgons and three Elder Muses being famous examples.

Some of these groupings were more important than others, and it could be argued that the Muses, as inspiration for all mortals, were more important than the Gorgons; but of course, the Gorgons are more famous, as they appear in the adventure of Perseus. In a similar way, the three Graeae are famous, rather than overly important, as they, like the Gorgons, are encountered by Perseus.

Perseus and the Graeae

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100
Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) PD-art-100 | Source

The Appearance of the Graeae

The Graeae are normally described in terms of three old women; with the collective name meaning “the grey ones”. These old women were said to be born grey, but their most obvious feature was that they shared one eye and one tooth, each taking turns with the eye or tooth.

The Graeae are also known as the Grey Sisters, as they were the daughters of the sea deities, Phorcys and Ceto. The parentage of Phorcys and Ceto means that the Graeae are sisters to the Gorgons, Echidna, Ladon, Scylla, the Sirens and Thoosa.

Whilst it is most common to talk of three Graeae, Hesiod, in the Theogony, and Ovid, in Metamorphoses, indicated that there were only two sisters. Nevertheless, where three Graeae are talked of, they are named as Enyo, meaning horror, Deino, meaning dread, and Pemphredo, alarm. Of the three Graeae, Enyo, is possible the most significant, as some ancient writers would describe her as being the “waster of cities”, although it is not entirely clear whether there was more than one female figure named Enyo.

Perseus Returns the Eye of the Graeae

Füssli, Johann Heinrich CC-BY-SA-3.0
Füssli, Johann Heinrich CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

The Role of the Graeae in Greek Mythology

The Graeae are thought to be the personification of the white foam of the sea, just as the Gorgons were thought of as the personification of the dangerous underwater reefs. The role of the Graeae in Greek mythology though, was simply as guardians of the Gorgons, or more specifically guardians of the secret location of the Gorgons.

It was knowledge of the Gorgons’ location that saw Perseus encounter the Graeae; Perseus requiring the head of the Gorgon Medusa to complete his quest.

Perseus would play on the fear that the Graeae had of going permanently blind, and as the Graeae passed the single between them, Perseus intercepted it and held it hostage. Perseus demanded answers to his questions, with the most important question being the location of the Gorgons; a question to which the Graeae responded.

The actions of Perseus do not seem particularly heroic, but even less heroic would be the possibility that, after Perseus had his answer, he threw the eye into Lake Tritonis; it is arguably better to think that the hero handed the eye back, as is told in most versions of the myth.

Perseus and the Grey Sisters

A book of myths (1915) PD US
A book of myths (1915) PD US | Source

The Grey Sisters in Literature

The story of Perseus and the Graeae was a widespread one; hence the fame of the Graeae. In antiquity Hesiod, Pinder, Hyginus, Ovid and Nonnos all wrote about the encounter between Perseus and the Grey Sisters, but away from this tale the Graeae are rarely mentioned.

Of course, many ancient sources have been lost, and it is known that the Graeae were a feature of the lost play by Aeschylus, titled Phorcydes (Phorcydes being the daughters of Phorcys in Greek mythology). This play though, once again is part of the story of Perseus’ life.

The story from Greek mythology of the three sisters with one eye does live on in to the modern day, with the Graeae appearing in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series of books; the sisters operating as a taxi firm.

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