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The Titanide Phoebe in Greek mythology

Updated on August 17, 2016
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.

Today, most people will be able to name at least a handful of deities from Greek mythology, and the likes of Zeus, Apollo and Hermes are particularly famous. These gods, and the other most commonly named, are gods of Mount Olympus, but they are but a small proportion of the larger Greek pantheon.

Gaia, mother of Phoebe

Anselm Feuerbach: Gaea (1875). Ceiling painting, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna PD-art-100
Anselm Feuerbach: Gaea (1875). Ceiling painting, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna PD-art-100 | Source

Phoebe, daughter of Gaia

The gods of Mount Olympus were in fact latecomers to Greek mythology, their appearance linked to the growing importance of the Hellenic people. The appearance of the Olympian gods would subsequently diminish the importance of the gods who were worshipped before, most notably the Titans, and as such these predecessors are often overlooked, and as a result, are now relatively unknown. One such overlooked deity is Phoebe, one of the Titanides, the six female Titans.

The first generation Titans, of which Phoebe was a member, were the twelve children of the sky god, Uranus, and mother earth, Gaia. The six male Titanes were Kronos, Iapetus, Oceanus, Hyperion, Crius and Coeus, whilst the females were Rhea, Themis, Tethys, Theia, Mneomsyne and Phoebe.

Rebellion

At the time Uranus was the supreme deity in the cosmos, but Gaia plotted against him; Gaia being upset about the imprisonment of her earlier born offspring in Tartarus. Gaia convinced the Titans to act against their father, and so when Uranus descended to earth, the male Titans held the sky god down whilst Kronos castrated his father with a sickle made of adamantine. The female Titans, Phoebe included, did not take an active role in this act of rebellion, but they would benefit from its results.

Phoebe

Phoebe (Titan), 19th century unsigned painting from Continental School PD-art-100
Phoebe (Titan), 19th century unsigned painting from Continental School PD-art-100 | Source

Phoebe's role in Ancient Greece

Uranus retreated back to the heavens, but the god now had but a small proportion of his powers remaining, Kronos would therefore replace his father as the supreme deity. The other Titans effectively divided the cosmos up between them, and each became associated with elements of that universe. Phoebe in particularly was associated with the moon and also prophecy.

In her role as goddess of prophecy, Phoebe would be the third deity associated with the Delphic Oracle; Gaia and Themis having preceded her in this role.

Offspring of Phoebe

The rule of the Titans was a prosperous one, and it is normally classed as being the ‘Golden Age’ for Greek mythology. It was during this time that Phoebe became the sister-wife of Coeus, with the pair becoming parents to two daughters, Leto and Asteria.

Leto, daughter of Phoebe

François Lemoyne (1721) - Latona and the Peasants of Lycia PD-art-100
François Lemoyne (1721) - Latona and the Peasants of Lycia PD-art-100 | Source

The Golden Age comes to an end

This period of prosperity, and power for the Titans, would eventually come to an end, when Zeus returned from hiding to lead a rebellion against his father. Zeus and his allies would take on the Titans and their allies in a ten year war, the Titanomachy.

The story of the Titanomachy today now comes almost solely from Hesiod’s Theogony, other ancient sources having been lost or surviving only in fragments. A consensus suggests though that Phoebe did not take part in the fighting, although she was supportive of her brothers in the war.

The Titans were eventually defeated, and to the victors came the spoils. Punishment was meted out by Zeus to the male Titans, but Phoebe, having not been an active participant in the war, went without punishment.

The Delphic Oracle

John Collier (1850–1934) - Priestess of Delphi (1891) PD-art-100
John Collier (1850–1934) - Priestess of Delphi (1891) PD-art-100 | Source

Phoebe fades in importance

The importance of Phoebe subsequently dwindled, and the goddess became better known for her grandchildren than her powers; via Leto, Phoebe was grandmother to Apollo and Artemis, and via Asteria, she was also grandmother to the goddess Hecate. Any remnants of importance vanished with the passing of authority for the Oracle at Delphi to Apollo; Phoebe presenting the oracle as a birthday gift. The old order had been almost totally replaced with the new deities.

In the surviving texts of Greek mythology, Phoebe is only a peripheral figure but the goddess did link into mythological important areas. In antiquity the oracle at Delphi was the most important of all Oracles and Sibyls in the ancient world. As both a mother and grandmother, Phoebe was also important in the genealogy of the Greek gods and goddesses as well.

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