Greek MythologyMythology

Nyx, Goddess of Night

Not being one of the 12 Olympians, Nyx is a relatively unknown goddess with little lore or legends about her. Most of what we have are descriptions of her from other deities, though what we do know is fascinating. Even for a goddess, she was ancient, being among the first children of Chaos and the mother of many who  ended up more well known than her. That is perhaps why she was such a powerful goddess. Her age and her legacy made her fearsome. She was the progenitor of an entire line of deities, distinct from the children of Gaia, most of whom she had on her own. While we don’t know much, we know that she was strong. Strong enough to terrify Zeus, who was himself obviously exceedingly powerful and feared. In Homer’s Illiad 8.15-20 it explicitly states about Zeus’ strength:

ἐξάπτεσθε θεοὶ πᾶσαί τε θέαιναι: ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἂν ἐρύσαιτ᾽ ἐξ οὐρανόθεν πεδίον δὲ Ζῆν᾽ ὕπατον μήστωρ᾽, οὐδ᾽ εἰ μάλα πολλὰ κάμοιτε. ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ πρόφρων ἐθέλοιμι ἐρύσσαι, αὐτῇ κεν γαίῃ ἐρύσαιμ᾽ αὐτῇ τε θαλάσσῃ: σειρὴν μέν κεν ἔπειτα περὶ ῥίον Οὐλύμποιο δησαίμην, τὰ δέ κ᾽ αὖτε μετήορα πάντα γένοιτο. τόσσον ἐγὼ περί τ᾽ εἰμὶ θεῶν περί τ᾽ εἴμ᾽ ἀνθρώπων.If all gods and goddesses took up a golden cord from the heavens, you would not be able to drag Zeus, highest counselor, from the heavens, though you would try. But if I wished, I could drag you all and the sea up with the earth so that all was hanging from the cord. So great I am above gods and humans.

My Homeric Greek is somewhat rusty, but I think the meaning comes across. Zeus talks about how much more powerful he is than the other Olympians. He is the one saying this, but no one contradicted him on this point. And Nyx terrified him. Later, when Hypnos is talking about fleeing to Nyx to escape Zeus’ wrath, we get this in Illiad 14.260:

ὃ δ᾽ ἐπεγρόμενος χαλέπαινε ῥιπτάζων κατὰ δῶμα θεούς, ἐμὲ δ᾽ ἔξοχα πάντων ζήτει: καί κέ μ᾽ ἄϊστον ἀπ᾽ αἰθέρος ἔμβαλε πόντῳ, εἰ μὴ Νὺξ δμήτειρα θεῶν ἐσάωσε καὶ ἀνδρῶν: 260τὴν ἱκόμην φεύγων, ὃ δ᾽ ἐπαύσατο χωόμενός περ. ἅζετο γὰρ μὴ Νυκτὶ θοῇ ἀποθύμια ἕρδοι.Waking up, he was violent, throwing the house of the gods. He sought me most of all. He would have thrown me to the sea from the heavens unseen if Nyx, tamer of gods and humans, did not rescue me. I went to her, fleeing his anger. For he stood in awe of swift Nyx and would not anger her.

What’s interesting here is that she is referred to as “δμήτειρα θεῶν […] καὶ ἀνδρῶν”, the “tamer of gods and humans.” That’s quite an appellation. As well, Zeus himself “stands in awe” of her. Both of those passages are from the Illiad, though she gets a passing mention in Hesiod’s Theogony when the poet describes the gods’ family tree at the beginning and when her home is described in line 744, where she lives with some of her children. The LSJ notes that the specific word(ἅζετο) describing her relationship to Zeus translates to “stand in awe of, esp. gods and one’s parents.” Zeus is the one who stands in awe. While reading too much into a word, especially without looking at how it is used in multiple contexts, isn’t wise, it’s interesting to see something like that applied to the literal king of the gods relative to anything else. My interpretation is that it’s less of a matter of respect like one might have for parents and more a case of fear like Greeks had for the gods. Zeus descended from Chaos by way of Gaia, who would have been a sister to Nyx, making Nyx his great-aunt. They were related like all the gods, but Zeus didn’t fear anyone else.

All that being said, we really don’t know too much about her from the myths. Thanks to Hesiod’s Theogony, we know she was one of the first beings had a number of children, and where she lived, but we don’t know much about any worship of her or any other myths that really involve her. Save for an Orpheus poem, which attributes Nyx rather than Chaos as the origin.

Even iconography is largely sparse. I could be wrong but from what I’ve seen, the oldest depictions of her are Roman. This isn’t altogether surprising since most of the primordials don’t receive a lot of direct worship or myths, but were quite important from a narrative perspective for setting the stage for the Olympians later.

So what do we really know about her? She’s old. She’s powerful. She dwells in Tartarus, a place that frightens even gods, and she’s at least somewhat close with her children. She’s also influential for her legacy. She had a lot of kids, like I mentioned, either with Erebus or, for the majority, spontaneously generating them. And these offspring have a major impact on human existence.

Take a look.

chart showing some of the children of Nyx

Strife, Woe, Sleep, Friendship, Death.

These are some names that impact most facets of human life.  And that graphic doesn’t include her grandchildren. There are a lot more. She had a prolific legacy.

Beyond all that, she’s kind of a mystery, and a fascinating one. Unfortunately that’s really all I can say.

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