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Tethys

Daughter of Gaia and Uranus, Tethys was a Titan who married her brother Oceanus and mothered three thousand children known as the Oceanids.

In Greek mythology Tethys was a Titan and the daughter of Gaia and Uranus. In later life, Tethys married her brother Oceanus, and together they bore the innumerable children known as the Oceanids. Despite reproducing so prolifically, Tethys remained an obscure deity deemed unworthy of worship by the Greeks.

Etymology

While the origin of “Tethys” remains somewhat elusive, it may be related to the ancient Greek word tethē, meaning “grandmother.” The name “Tethys” could be also be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European verb meaning “to suck” or “to suckle,” making it a reference to her legendary weaning of baby Hera.

Attributes

Throughout the few sources the mention her, Tethys was consistently portaryed as a maternal figure. Due to her relationship with Oceanus and motherhood of the Oceanids, she was vaguely associated with bodies of water as well.

Family

A daughter of the primordial deities Gaia and Uranus, Tethys was one of twelve Titans, the others being Coeus, Crius, Cronus, Hyperion, Iapetus, Thea, Rhea, Themis, Menmosyne, Phoebe and Oceanus. Beyond her fellow Titans, Tethys’s siblings included the horrific one-eyed Cyclopes and the equally detested Hecatoncheires, monsters who had a hundred hands each.

Tethys’s took her brother Oceanus as her lover, and—according to Hesiod—the pair had “three thousand” children together.1 This number has generally been interpreted as a poetic metaphor, implying that Tethys’s children were too numerous to count. These children, the sea nymphs known collectively as the Oceanids, counted several significant figures among their number: Metis, who mated with Zeus and conceived the goddess Athena; Thetis, who married the mortal hero Peleus and gave birth to the mighty Achilles; Amphitrite, the consort of the sea god Poseidon; Dione, a lover of Zeus; Clymene, a lover of Iapetus; and Pleione, who was the wife of the Titan, Atlas, and the mother of the Pleiades.

Mythology

Tethys was mentioned briefly in Hesiod’s eighth century Theogony, an epic work describing the divine order as the Greeks understood it. Hesiod introduced Tethys as a child of Gaia and Uranus, and later elaborated on her relationship with Oceanus, devoting particular attention to their children they had together:

For there are three thousand neat-ankled daughters of Ocean [and Tethys] who are dispersed far and wide, and in every place alike serve the earth and the deep waters, children who are glorious among goddesses. And as many other rivers are there, babbling as they flow, sons of Ocean, whom queenly Tethys bare, but their names it is hard for a mortal man to tell, but people know those by which they severally dwell.2

In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus’s wife Hera claimed that Tethys watched over her when she was a baby and Zeus was struggling to overthrow Cronus:

For I am faring to visit the limits of the all-nurturing earth, and Oceanus, from whom the gods are sprung, and mother Tethys, even them that lovingly nursed and cherished me in their halls, when they had taken me from Rhea, [during] what time Zeus, whose voice is borne afar, thrust Cronos down to dwell beneath earth and the unresting sea.[^3]

Hera’s story suggested an important mythological role for Tethys, and provided insight into Tethys’s role in the Titanomachy that pitted the Olympians against the Titans. For reasons that remain unclear, Tethys sided with the Olympians during this conflict.

Pop Culture

Tethys appeared in 1998’s Hercules and Xena – The Animated Movie: The Battle for Mount Olympus, where she was represented as a water deity with a major appetite for destruction. Portrayed as an ardent supporter of the Titans’s cause, the film’s Tethys attempted to kill Aphrodite.

Tethys also lent her name to one of the many moons orbiting the planet Saturn.

References

Bibliography

  1. Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed on March 11, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.

  2. Homer. Iliad. Translated by A.T. Murray. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed on March 11, 2020. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0134%3Abook%3D14%3Acard%3D193

  3. “Tethys.” Wikipedia. Accessed on March 11, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tethys_(mythology)

Footnotes

  1. Hesiod, Theogony, 346–370. 

  2. Hesiod, Theogony, 346–370. 

Citation

About the Author

Thomas Apel is a historian of science and religion who received his Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University.