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The Pleiad Maia in Greek Mythology

Updated on February 11, 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.

There are hundreds of individual stories that make up Greek mythology as a whole. Many of these stories tell of the adventures of mortal heroes, demi-gods and deities; and stories like the Trojan War in the Iliad and the voyage of Odysseus in the Odyssey have endured through the generations.

At the same time, many of the stories of Greek mythology, tell of the sexual adventures of the gods; with the likes of Zeus and Poseidon, seemingly on a continuous mission of sexual conquest. One of these stories focuses on Maia, a target of Zeus, although Maia’s story touches on the lives of many other gods.

The Birth of Maia

Maia was one of the seven Pleiades; the Pleiades being the mountain nymph daughters of the Titan Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione. In Greek mythology, Atlas was father to some of the most beautiful children, with the Pleiades and Hesperides beautiful daughters that were chased by mortals and immortals alike.

The role of Maia and the other Pleiades in Greek mythology was to act attendants to Artemis, the beautiful goddess of the hunt. As attendants to Artemis, the Pleiades were brought into close contact with other gods of the Greek pantheon, including Zeus and Poseidon.

Maia and the other Pleiades

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) PD-art-100
Elihu Vedder (1836–1923) PD-art-100 | Source

Maia and Zeus

Maia was often said to be the most beautiful of all the Pleiades, as well as being the eldest. When the male gods came to chase the Pleiades, Maia would not give into their advances, and would normally hide away in a cave upon Mount Cyllene.

Hiding away though, was not a tactic that was likely to dissuade Zeus or Poseidon, and it was Zeus who made Maia his aim.

Zeus did not even give Maia the chance to run away from him, and so the god came to Maia during the night, and impregnated her whilst she slept.

Hermes and Apollo

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) PD-art-100
Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) PD-art-100 | Source

Maia gives birth to Hermes

The result of Zeus’ night time escapade, was that Maia would give birth to a future Olympian god, Hermes. Zeus conquest of Maia, and the subsequent production of a child was not particularly remarkable, as similar events did often occur in Greek mythology. The activity of the newborn Hermes though was different.

Shortly after he was born, and whilst Maia slept, Hermes left the cave on Mount Cyllene, and made his way all the way to Thessaly. In Thessaly, Hermes would steal cattle belonging to Apollo, his half-brother. Not content with being a cattle thief, Hermes, despite being a new born, also invent the lyre the same night.

Apollo was quick to accuse Hermes of the theft, and a violent disagreement between the two commenced. Zeus had to intercede eventually, and although Maia pointed out the impossibility of a new born being able to travel to Thessaly, Zeus knew the truth.

The story of Maia continues

Having given birth to Hermes, a god who would become the favoured son of Zeus, Maia remained in favour. Zeus would indeed turn to Maia for help, after Hera had turned one of his other lovers, Callisto, into a bear. Callisto had given birth to another son for Zeus, Arcas, and Maia was asked to raise that son by the supreme god.

Zeus though was not the only one who fancied Maia, and the giant hunter Orion wanted to mate with Maia and her sisters. Artemis though, did not take kindly to the idea of a giant chasing her attendants, and so asked Zeus to ensure that Orion would never be able to take advantage of the Pleiades.

Initially, Zeus turned Maia and her sisters into doves, but Orion was a good hunter, and eventually managed to track the doves down. Zeus then decided to put the seven Pleiades out of reach of the giant, and turned them into stars that would become part of the Taurus constellation.

Maia therefore found herself part of the night sky for eternity, just as her adopted son, Arcas had been; Zeus having transformed Arcas into Ursa Minor.

As mother of Hermes, Maia was of course important in Greek mythology, but this importance has also continued into the modern world, with the month of May named in her honour .

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