Sky God

Aether

Summer is here by Kumiko Shimizu via Unsplash (2018)

The primordial god Aether personified the upper reaches of the sky, the original home of the gods. Summer is here (2017).

Kumiko ShimizuUnsplash

Etymology

The name “Aether” (Greek Αἰθήρ, translit. Aithḗr) is a Greek word for the upper air or clear heaven. It is probably ultimately derived from the Indo-European *h₂eidʰ-, “kindle, ignite.”[1]

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    AetherΑἰθήρ (Aithḗr)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [EE-ther]/ˈi θər/

Attributes

General

Aether was the Greek deity who personified the “upper air,” the bright and clear part of the heaven. From the very earliest antiquity, the Aether was regarded as the home of the gods,[2] and in cosmology represented the highest and purest reach of the cosmos.[3]

In antiquity, Aether was sometimes identified with other early sky gods. Some sources, for instance, seem to have confused or combined the figures of Aether and Uranus (“Sky”), who in the standard tradition was the son and chief consort of Gaia (“Earth”).[4] Others identified Aether with other gods or personified deities, such as the sun (usually personified by Helios).[5]

Iconography

There are no definite instances of Aether in ancient art. The only (potential) appearance of Aether in art is on the monumental frieze of the Pergamon Altar (180/160 BCE), where he may be shown fighting against the Giants alongside the other gods.[6] 

Family

In the standard tradition, Aether was the child of Erebus and Nyx, two of the primordial gods born from Chaos, the first being of creation. Erebus was the personification of darkness, Nyx of night.[7] But there were other versions of Aether’s parentage too, with the Roman mythographer Hyginus making him the child of Chaos and Caligo (“Mist”).[8]

Aether’s sister was Hemera, the personification of daylight; in most traditions, she also became Aether’s consort. Together they had Brotus, a mysterious figure about whom little is known;[9] in one early (though somewhat obscure) tradition, Aether and Hemera were the parents of Eros, the god of love;[10] and according to later traditions, Aether and Hemera were also the parents of the earth, the heaven, and the sea.[11]

Other accounts, identifying Aether with the more important sky god Uranus, had Aether couple with Uranus’ wife Gaia, the personified earth; Hyginus even had Aether and Gaia give birth to a host of elemental forces (Grief, Deceit, Anger, Lamentation, Falsehood, Oath, Vengeance, Intemperance, Altercation, Forgetfulness, Sloth, Fear, Pride, Incest, and Combat), as well as the Titans, Tartarus, Pontus, and the Erinyes.[12]

Some sources expanded Aether’s family further. Aristophanes playfully made him the father of the clouds in one of his comedies (though this was not necessarily a part of Aether’s “official” genealogy). In one early tradition, Aether seems to have been the father of Uranus.[13] Finally, one tradition made him and the nymph Oenoe (or Oeneis) the parents of the woodland god Pan.[14]

The Orphics, a Greek religious group with beliefs that were often idiosyncratic, had a different version of Aether’s genealogy. According to some Orphic sources, it seems that Aether was the son of Chronos (“Time”), the brother of Chaos and Erebus.[15]

Mythology

Aether is a genealogical and elemental member in Greek cosmogony; he has no personal mythology. According to Hesiod, Aether and his sister Hemera were directly descended from Chaos, the very first being in the cosmos, emerging from the union of Chaos’ children Erebus (“Darkness”) and Nyx (“Night”).[16]

But there were other versions of Aether’s mythological role. In some accounts of the “theogony” (that is, the “birth of the gods”), Aether existed at the very beginning of the cosmos, perhaps together with Hades.[17] For the Orphics, he was the child of Chronos, “Time” personified (see above), and was thought to represent the world soul.[18] Other sources interpreted Aether allegorically as an equivalent of Zeus, the ruling force within the cosmos.[19]

References

Notes

  1. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 36.

  2. Homer, Iliad 2.412.

  3. Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.17.70.

  4. E.g., Hyginus, Fabulae pref.1–3; cf. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things 1.250–51.

  5. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 40.47.

  6. Erika Simon, “Aither,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1981), 1:412–13.

  7. Hesiod, Theogony 124–25; Acusilaus of Argos, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 2 frag. 6b.

  8. Hyginus, Fabulae pref.1.

  9. Hesiod, frag. 400 Merkelbach-West.

  10. Acusilaus of Argos, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 2 frag. 6. The evidence for this fragment is confused, however: another possibility is that Acusilaus made Eros the child of Erebus and Nyx, not Aether and Nyx.

  11. Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.44; Hyginus, Fabulae pref.2.

  12. Hyginus, Fabulae pref.3; cf. Euripides, frags. 182a, 839 Kannicht.

  13. Eumelus, Titanomachy frag. 1 West.

  14. Ariaethus, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) 316 frag. 4 (from scholia on Euripides, Rhesus 36); cf. scholia on Theocritus, Idyll 1.121.

  15. Orphic frag. 54 Kern; cf. Orphic Argonautica 14.

  16. Hesiod, Theogony 124–25.

  17. Musaeus, frag. B14 Diels-Kranz.

  18. Orphic Hymn 5.

  19. Pherecydes of Syros, frag. A8–9 Diels-Kranz; cf. Euripides, frag. 941 Kannicht.

Primary Sources

Probably the most important literary source for Aether and his place in Greek mythology is the Theogony of Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE). Other early sources known to have discussed Aether include Acusilaus of Argos (sixth century BCE) and Pherecydes of Syros (mid-sixth century BCE), but their works survive only in fragments.

In later literature, Aether was increasingly identified with other gods, especially Uranus. The Roman writers Cicero (106–43 BCE) and Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later) both made Aether the father of earth, heaven, and sea, and Hyginus also made him (like Uranus) a consort of Gaia and father of many other deities.

More information about Aether comes from texts and commentaries, such as the scholia, that were compiled during later periods, in the Byzantine Period or the Middle Ages. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Graf, Fritz. “Aether.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e111080.

Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th edtn. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Roscher, W. H. “Aither.” In W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Vol. 1, 198–99. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–1890.

Simon, Erika. “Aither.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 1, 412–13. Zurich: Artemis, 1981.

Smith, William. “Aether.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed June 7, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D8%3Aentry%3Daether-bio-1.

Theoi Project. “Aither.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Protogenos/Aither.html.

Wernicke, Konrad. “Aither.” In Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 1.1, 1093–94. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1893.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Aether.” Mythopedia, March 11, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/aether.

Kapach, Avi. “Aether.” Mythopedia, 11 Mar. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/aether. Accessed on 6 Jun. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, March 11). Aether. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/aether

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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