Primordial Goddess

Nyx

Nyx, daughter of Chaos and personification of the night, was among the first Greek gods of the cosmos. She bore numerous children, both with her brother-consort Erebus as well as on her own, representing various personifications and abstractions.

Top Questions

  • Was Nyx a Titan?

    No. Nyx was one of the first entities to come into existence and a daughter of Chaos, while the Titans were the twelve children of Gaia and their descendants.

  • Who were Nyx’s parents?

    According to the common tradition, Nyx had only one parent, Chaos, who bore her without a consort.

  • Who was Nyx’s husband?

    Nyx married her brother Erebus, the personification of darkness.

Overview

Nyx, the personification of night, was generally regarded as one of the mysterious primordial gods. Along with her brother-consort Erebus, she inhabited the dark recesses of the Underworld. An immensely powerful being, she was respected and feared even by Zeus.

In the common tradition, Nyx was a child of Chaos, the first entity of creation. She had numerous children, both with Erebus as well as on her own (that is, without the help of a consort). These children included Aether (“Upper Air”), Hemera (“Day”), and various other personifications and abstractions.

Etymology

The name “Nyx” (Greek Νύξ, translit. Nýx) is simply the Greek word meaning “night.” The word itself is derived from the Proto-Indo-European *nekwt-/nokwt- (“night”) or *negwh- (“become dark”). Almost all Indo-European languages employ a similar word for night (e.g., the Latin nox, the Gothic nahts, the Sanskrit nák, and the Lithuanian naktìs).[1]

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    NyxΝύξ (Nýx)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [niks]/nɪks/

Alternative Names and Epithets

Nyx had a handful of epithets and alternative names. Some of these epithets emphasized Nyx’s nocturnal aspect: epithets such as κελαινή (kelainḗ), μέλαινα (mélaina), and ἐρεβεννή (erebennḗ), all of which mean “dark” or “black;” some epithets, such as ἱερά (hierá, “holy”) and ἀμβροσίη (ambrosíē, “ambrosial, divine”), highlighted Nyx’s importance as a goddess, while other epithets, such as ὀλοή (oloḗ, “ruinous”), highlighted the dread that the Greeks (like many others) associated with the night. 

Nyx was sometimes also known by names such as Euphrone or Euphrosyne, from Greek words meaning “kindly” or “cheerful.”[2] Such euphemistic names were often applied to sinister powers as a way to placate them and neutralize their malignancy: compare the gentle title Eumenides, “Kindly Ones,” that was frequently used to invoke the grim Erinyes (“Furies”).

The Roman equivalent of Nyx was called Nox (from the Latin word for “night”).

Attributes

Functions and Characteristics

As the personification of night, Nyx was associated with darkness (similar to her husband Erebus, himself the personification of darkness). She was viewed as an extremely powerful goddess or cosmic force: Homer described her as she who “bends to her sway both gods and men,”[3] a goddess feared even by Zeus. The Romans associated Nyx with the hellish realm of death, magic, and witchcraft.[4]

Nyx rode through the heavens on a chariot drawn by black horses after Helios (the sun) had completed his daytime journey;[5] in some accounts, she was accompanied by Sleep personified, who held the reins,[6] and the dreams and stars moved in her baggage train.[7] Poets often imagined her clad in finery symbolizing her nocturnal dominion: a black robe studded with stars,[8] a wreath of poppy,[9] or with black wings growing from her shoulders.[10]

Nyx was usually said to live with her daughter Hemera (“Day”) in the darkness of the Underworld, somewhere in the far west in a region sometimes considered interchangeable with Nyx’s consort Erebus;[11] alternatively, her home was sometimes placed in the far north.[12]

Iconography

In ancient art (as well as literature), Nyx was represented as either winged[13] or riding a chariot,[14] stretching a cloak of night and stars across the sky. Sometimes she had a kind of dark, misty halo above her head or wore a veil. The Cypselus Chest, a celebrated ancient artifact known today only from ancient descriptions, represented a maternal Nyx cradling her children Hypnos (“Sleep”) and Thanatos (“Death”).[15] She appears relatively rarely in ancient art, and is often difficult to identify because of her resemblance to other celestial goddesses such as Eos and Selene.[16]

Family

Nyx was commonly said to have been a child of Chaos, who begot her and her brother Erebus (“Darkness”) without a consort.[17] Some traditions, however, made Nyx the daughter of Chaos and Caligo (“Mist”),[18] while the Orphics made her the daughter of the obscure primordial god Phanes.[19]

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Nyx and Erebus were the only children of Chaos; other sources, however, numbered among their siblings Aether (“Upper Air”), Hemera (“Day”),[20] Eros,[21] and the Moirae.[22]

According to Hesiod, Nyx married her brother Erebus, with whom she had Aether and Hemera.[23] Alone—that is, without Erebus’ help—Nyx had many more children who represented various personifications and abstractions, including Nemesis (“Retribution”), Eris (“Discord”), Thanatos (“Death”), and the Moirae (“Fates”).[24]

The poet Bacchylides, on the other hand, said in one poem that Nyx had Hemera with Chronos (“Time”) rather than Erebus;[25] in another poem, he made Nyx the mother of Hecate, a goddess of witchcraft.[26]

Other accounts made Nyx the mother of the Erinyes (“Furies”),[27] the Astra (“Stars”),[28] or Eos.[29] One source made Nyx the mother of Lyssa (“Madness”) after being inseminated by the blood of Uranus.[30] Another source said either that Erebus and Nyx were the parents of Aether, Eros, and Metis or that Nyx mated with Aether to beget Eros.[31] According to Epimenides, a world egg—the origin of the comsos—emerged from the union of Nyx, Aer, and Tartarus.[32] The Orphics appear to have made her the mother of Uranus (“Sky”) and Gaia, perhaps born from the union of Nyx and her father (or creator) Phanes.[33] According to Aristotle, on the other hand, Nyx was the originator of Phanes (rather than vice versa).[34]

Family Tree

  • Parents
    Father
  • Siblings
    Brother
  • Consorts
    Husband
  • Children
    Daughters
    Sons
    • Ker
    • Hemera
    • Oizys
    • Hesperides
    • Moirae
    • Keres
    • Nemesis
    • Apate
    • Eris
    • Philote
    • Aether
    • Moros
    • Thanatos
    • Hypnos
    • Oneiroi
    • Momos
    • Geras

Mythology

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Nyx and her brother Erebus were born to Chaos soon after the beginning of the cosmos:

In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night.[35]

Nyx, the personification of night, then married her brother Erebus, the personification of darkness, and bore two children by him:

but of Night were born Aether and Day [Hemera], whom she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus.[36]

According to Hesiod, Nyx then had a number of children on her own, without the help of Erebus (including the grim personifications Nemesis, Thanatos, and the Moirae).[37]

Night and her children Aither and Hemera-Fuseli-1810-15

Night and her Children Aither and Hemera by Henry Fuseli (1810–1815).

Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

Nyx was respected and feared even by the most powerful of the Greek gods. In one myth, Hera had Hypnos, the god of sleep, put Zeus to sleep so that she could cause misfortune to Heracles (Zeus’ illegitimate son and her enemy). When Zeus woke up and discovered what had happened, he was on the verge of meting out a terrible punishment to Hypnos, but he held back for fear of Hypnos’ mother, Nyx. Thus, even the ruler of the Greek gods preferred to avoid upsetting Nyx.[38]

Other Versions

Nyx was extremely important in the mythology of the Orphics, an ancient Greek religious community that subscribed to distinctive beliefs and practices (called “Orphism,” “Orphic religion,” or the “Orphic Mysteries”). Orphism was supposedly laid out by the mythical musician Orpheus and features important differences from traditional Greek religion.

Nyx appears to have been central to the Orphic theogonies (their mythological accounts of the origins of the gods and the cosmos)—much more so than in the more traditional theogony known from the poems of Hesiod. According to the Orphics, Nyx was usually the daughter of Phanes (or Eros), himself one of the first entities to come into existence as well as the original ruler of the cosmos (see above). But in some versions of the Orphic cosmogony, Nyx herself was the very first being of creation.[39]

Most Orphic traditions appear to have made Nyx one of the first rulers of the cosmos. She eventually passed the scepter to her son Uranus. From her oracular cave, Nyx continued to serve Uranus and his successors (Cronus and ultimately Zeus) as a respected adviser; in some accounts she even nursed the Titans and hid them from the vicious Uranus.[40]

Worship

In traditional Greek religion, the cult of Nyx was limited (the primordial goddess was probably more important in Orphism). But Nyx does appear to have been worshipped in connection with the oracles at Delphi[41] and in Megara at the temple of Dionysus Nyktelios (“Nocturnal Dionysus”).[42]

Nox, Nyx’s Roman counterpart, may have been honored by the Romans in connection with certain rituals for the dead (though our sources for these sacrifices may represent nothing more than poetic fancy).[43]

References

Notes

  1. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 2:1027.

  2. E.g., Sophocles, Electra 19.

  3. Homer, Iliad 14.259, trans. A. T. Murray.

  4. E.g., Virgil, Aeneid 6.265, 390, 12.846; Ovid, Metamorphoses 7.192, 14.404; Horace, Epodes 5.51; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 5.396ff; etc.

  5. Euripides, Andromeda frag. 114 Kannicht; Tibullus, Elegies 3.4.17.

  6. Statius, Thebaid 2.59.

  7. Euripides, Ion 1150; Theocritus, Idyll 2.166; Tibullus, Elegies 2.1.87.

  8. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 24.

  9. Ovid, Fasti 4.661–62.

  10. Virgil, Aeneid 8.369.

  11. Hesiod, Theogony 748; Euripides, Orestes 175; Virgil, Aeneid 6.390.

  12. Alcman, frag. 90 PMG (Poetae Melici Graeci).

  13. See, for example, Euripides, Orestes 175ff.

  14. See, for example, Euripides, Ion 1150; Orphic Hymn 2; Virgil, Aeneid 5.721; Tibullus, Elegies 2.1.87; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 3.211.

  15. Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.18.1.

  16. On Nyx in ancient art, see Semni Karusu, “Astra,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1984), 2.1:905–9; Helen Papastavrou, “Nyx,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1992), 6.1:939–41.

  17. Hesiod, Theogony 123; cf. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 31.115.

  18. Hyginus, Fabulae pref.1.

  19. Orphic frag. 98 Kern; Orphic Argonautica 12ff.

  20. Hyginus, Fabulae pref.1.

  21. Oppian, Halieutica 4.10.

  22. Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 3.755.

  23. Hesiod, Theogony 124.

  24. Hesiod, Theogony 211ff (for the full list, see the family tree below). According to other sources, these children (and others) were born to Nyx together with (rather than separate from) her brother-consort Erebus. In Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.17, the children of Nyx and Erebus are given (with Latin names) as Aether (“Upper Air”), Dies (= Hemera, “Day”), Amor (=Eros, “Love”), Dolus (“Guile”), Metus (=Phobos, “Fear”), Labor (=Ponos, “Toil”), Invidentia (“Envy”), Fatum (“Fate”), Senectus (=Geras, “Old Age”), Mors (=Thanatos, “Death”), Tenebrae (“Shadows”), Miseria (“Misery”), Querella (=Momos, “Criticism”), Gratia (“Favor”), Fraus (“Deceit”), Pertinacia (“Obstinacy”), the Parcae (=Moirae, “Fates”), the Hesperides, and the Somnia (=Oneiroi, “Dreams”). In Hyginus, Fabulae pref.1, the children of Nyx and Erebus are Fatum (“Fate”), Senectus (=Geras, “Old Age”), Mors (=Thanatos, “Death”), Letum (“Doom”), Continentia (“Continence”), Somnus (=Hypnos, “Sleep”), the Somnia (=Oneiroi, “Dreams”), Amor (=Eros, “Love”), Discordia (=Eris, “Strife”), Miseria (“Misery”), Petulantia (“Wantonness”), Nemesis (“Retribution”), Euphrosyne (“Joy”), Amicitia (=Philotes, “Friendship”), Misericordia (“Compassion”), and the Parcae (=Moirae, “Fates”), as well as Styx, the Hesperides, Epiphron, Hedymeles, Porphyrion, and Epaphus.

  25. Bacchylides, Ode 7.

  26. Bacchylides, frag. 1b Snell-Maehler.

  27. Aeschylus, Eumenides 321, passim; Lycophron, Alexandra 432; Virgil, Aeneid 6.327ff; Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.451; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 7.327. The father is sometimes named as either Hades or Acheron.

  28. Orphic Hymn 6.2.

  29. Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 2.625–26; cf. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 265.

  30. Euripides, Heracles 844ff.

  31. Acusilaus, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 2 frag. 6 (there are contradictory testimonia for this particular fragment).

  32. Epimenides, frag. B5 Diels-Kranz.

  33. Derveni Papyrus col. 11.5–6; Orphic frag. 109 Kern; cf. Aristophanes, Birds 693ff.

  34. Aristotle, Metaphysics 12.1071b.

  35. Hesiod, Theogony 116–23, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  36. Hesiod, Theogony 124–25, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  37. Hesiod, Theogony 211ff.

  38. Homer, Iliad 14.249ff.

  39. Orphic frag. 28 Kern; cf. Aristophanes, Birds 693ff; Aristotle, Metaphysics 12.1071b.

  40. Orphic Theogonies frags. 101, 102, 109, 129, 131 West; Orphic Argonautica 12ff; etc.

  41. Plutarch, On the Delays of Divine Vengeance 22.566c.

  42. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.40.6.

  43. Virgil, Aeneid 6.249–50; Ovid, Fasti 1.455, 5.421ff; Statius, Thebaid 1.497ff.

Primary Sources

Greek

Nyx is already present in Greek literature as early as Homer (eighth century BCE), appearing in Book 14 of the Iliad as a goddess even Zeus does not wish to anger (258–61). Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE) gives a fuller oultine of Nyx’s origins and cosmogonic role in his Theogony (123ff), probably the most important ancient source for the mythology of Nyx.

There are further references to Nyx scattered throughout later literature. Notably, Aristophanes (ca. 450–ca. 385 BCE) gives a parodic cosmogony in his comedy the Birds (693ff) where Nyx is one of the first beings of the cosmos. Nyx was indeed one of the earliest and most important gods in Orphism, and is thus prominent in many Orphic writings, some of them known today only in fragments but some of them still extant: the third of the Orphic Hymns (third century BCE–second century CE), for example, is dedicated to Nyx.

Roman

In Roman literature, Nyx becomes her Roman counterpart Nox. Roman poets were more inclined to stress the terrifying aspects of Nyx than the Greeks: thus, for poets such as Virgil (70–19 BCE), Horace (65–8 BCE), and Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE), Nox was a goddess connected with the Underworld, magic, and witchcraft. 

Some Roman sources also transmitted important information on Nyx’s genealogy (not always agreeing with the standard Hesiodic account): Cicero (106–43 BCE) lists the children of Nyx and Erebus in his dialogue On the Nature of the Gods (3.17), as does the mythographer Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later) in the preface to his Fabulae.

Secondary Sources

  • Bernert, Ernst. “Nyx.” In Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 17.2, 1663–72. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1937.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

  • Guthrie, W. K. G., and Antony Spawforth. “Nyx.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1027–28. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Hard, Robin. “The Family of Night.” In The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed., 57–61. New York: Routledge, 2020.

  • Höfer, O. “Nemesis.” In W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Vol. 3.1, 569–76. Leipzig: Teubner, 1898–1902.

  • Karusu, Semni. “Astra.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 2.1, 905–27. Zurich: Artemis, 1984.

  • Papastavrou, Helen. “Nyx.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 6.1, 939–41. Zurich: Artemis, 1992.

  • Ramnoux, Clémence. La Nuit et les enfants de la nuit dans la traduction grecque. Paris: Flammarion, 1959.

  • Smith, William. “Nyx.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed October 12, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DN%3Aentry+group%3D13%3Aentry%3Dnyx-bio-1.

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

  • von Einem, Herbert and Asmus Jacob Carstens. Die Nacht mit ihren Kindern. Cologne: Westdeutscher, 1958.

  • Walde, Christine. “Nyx.” 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_e827340.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Nyx.” Mythopedia, November 18, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/nyx.

Kapach, Avi. “Nyx.” Mythopedia, 18 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/nyx. Accessed on 23 Nov. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 18). Nyx. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/nyx

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

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

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