Nymphs

Oceanids

The Oceanids were gentle water nymphs, the three thousand daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. Scattered across the world, their main responsibility was caring for the young.

Les Océanides by Gustave Doré

Les Océanides by Gustave Doré (ca. 1860–1869)

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

Top Questions

  • Who were the Oceanids' parents?

    The Oceanids were the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, Titan siblings who were among the earliest sea gods.

  • Who were the most famous Oceanids?

    Only a few of the numerous Oceanids were portrayed as individuals in Greek mythology, and even then, their roles were usually limited to wife or mother. Styx, Dione, Doris, and Metis were among the Oceanids who enjoyed a wider significance or a mythology of their own.

  • Where did the Oceanids live?

    The Oceanids were said to be scattered throughout the earth. Since their father Oceanus embodied the “Ocean”—a great world-encircling stream—they were associated with water and the sea and were sometimes grouped together with other water nymphs (such as the Nereids and Naiads).

Overview

The three thousand Oceanids were fair and benevolent nymphs, daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. Though they were often associated with water and the sea, the Oceanids did not have a single home and were instead scattered far and wide throughout the world. As goddesses, they were responsible above all for the care of the young. Over time, the Oceanids were increasingly confused with the Nereids, another group of sea nymphs, who in many ways took the place of the Oceanids in the Greek imagination.

A few of the Oceanids played an individual role in Greek mythology. Styx, for example, was an Underworld goddess, representing one of the main rivers of the Underworld. Dione was, in some traditions, a consort of Zeus and the mother of Aphrodite. Doris was the wife of Nereus and the mother of the Nereids. And Metis was an early ally and wife of Zeus. Otherwise, the Oceanids were seen primarily as companions of other gods, such as Artemis or Persephone. They were rarely worshipped on their own.

Etymology

Etymologically, the term “Oceanid” (Greek Ὠκεανίς, translit. Ōkeanís; pl. Oceanids, Greek Ὠκεανίδες, translit Ōkeanídes) is fairly straightforward: it is a patronymic, meaning “daughter of Oceanus.”

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    Oceanid, OceanidsὨκεανίς, Ὠκεανίδες (translit. Ōkeanís, Ōkeanídes)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [oh-SEE-uh-nid, oh-SEE-uh-nidz]/oʊˈsi ə nɪd, oʊˈsi ə nɪdz/

Epithets and Alternate Names

The epithets that attached themselves to the Oceanids tended to emphasize their physical attractiveness. As a group, they could be described by such epithets as τανύσφυροι (tanýsphoroi, “long-ankled”). But many individual Oceanids had epithets of their own, including ἐρατή (eratḗ, “lovely”), ἐρόεσσα (eróessa, “lovely”), εὐειδής (eueidḗs, “beautiful”), and θεοειδής (theoeidḗs, “godlike”).

An earlier form of the Oceanids’ name was Ὠκεανῖναι (Ōkeanînai). In Latin literature, they were referred to as Oceanitides.

Attributes

General

The three thousand Oceanids were nymphs known above all for their beauty. Because their father Oceanus embodied the “Ocean” (a world-encircling stream), the Oceanids were connected with water and the sea. 

But the Oceanids did not all live in one place; rather, they were “dispersed far and wide”[1] across the sea as well as the earth. Some Oceanids, like Doris or Dione, lived with their divine consorts; others, like Perse, lived with their mortal consorts; one of the Oceanids, Styx, was revered as an Underworld goddess through the dreaded river to which she gave her name; and so on.

Charon Ferrying Souls across the River Styx by Alexander Litovchenko

Charon Ferrying Souls across the River Styx by Alexander Litovchenko (1861). The Styx, one of the rivers of the Greek Underworld, was named after the Oceanid Styx.

Russian Museum, St. PetersburgPublic Domain

As a group, the Oceanids’ chief function was to care for young children. They shared this responsibility with their brothers, the Potamoi (or “Rivers”), who were also said to be three thousand in number.[2]

Iconography

In ancient art, the Oceanids were depicted as beautiful young women, often scantily clad. One Oceanid in particular, Eurynome, was sometimes represented with a mermaid-like fish tail.[3]

Family

The three thousand Oceanids were the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, two of the original twelve Titans. Their brothers were the three thousand Potamoi, or “Rivers.”[4]

Many of the Oceanids had important consorts or children. Metis, for example, was married to Zeus (before he swallowed her and married Hera). Dione, another consort of Zeus, was in some traditions called the mother of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Doris married the sea god Nereus and gave birth to the fifty Nereids. And Perse (sometimes called Perseis) married the sun god Helios and may have been the mother of Aeetes and Circe.

Mythology

The Oceanids and the Gods

The Oceanids were born to the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, two early sea gods. Though these nymphs did not play a significant role in Greek mythology, their impressive pedigree still gave them a place among the gods.

Sometimes the Oceanids were portrayed as companions or attendants of more important gods. They were playmates of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, and were even said to be playing with her in a meadow when Hades kidnapped her and took her to be his bride in the Underworld.[5] Callimachus claims that Artemis, goddess of nature and wild things, asked her father Zeus for sixty Oceanids to serve as her attendants.[6]

Important Oceanids: Styx, Metis, and Others

Even though there were traditionally three thousand Oceanids, only a few had any individual importance. 

Styx, the eldest and perhaps most famous of the Oceanids, married Pallas, son of the Titans Crius and Eurybia. Together they had four children: Zelos (“Rivalry”), Nike (“Victory”), Kratos (“Strength”), and Bia (“Force”). Styx herself was an important ally of the Olympians during their war against the Titans. One of the rivers of the Underworld was named after her, and she was consequently regarded as an Underworld goddess.[7]

Another important Oceanid was Metis. Like Styx, Metis—whose name means “intelligence” in ancient Greek—helped Zeus and the Olympians in their war against the Titans. She then married Zeus, who became the new ruler of the cosmos. But Zeus discovered that Metis was destined to bear a son who would overthrow him. Not wanting to lose his power, Zeus swallowed Metis. In this way, Metis—that is, “intelligence”—came to live forever in Zeus’ head. When it was time for the daughter of Zeus and Metis to be born, Hephaestus split Zeus’ head with an ax, and Athena burst out.[8]

Vase painting of the birth of Athena

Attic black-figure tripod showing the birth of Athena, the daughter of Zeus and the Oceanid Metis, from the head of Zeus. Attributed to the C Painter (ca. 570–260 BCE). Found in Thebes.

Louvre Museum, Paris / Bibi Saint-PolPublic Domain

A few other Oceanids also had children by Zeus. These included Eurynome, the mother of the Charites (the “Graces”),[9] and Dione, the mother of Aphrodite.[10]

Other Oceanids who had important consorts or children included Callirhoe, wife of the golden giant Chrysaor and mother of the three-bodied Geryon;[11] Doris, who married Nereus and became mother of the Nereids;[12] Electra, who married Thaumas and became mother of Iris and the Harpies;[13] Philyra, who slept with Cronus in the form of a horse and gave birth to the Centaur Chiron;[14] Clymene, who married the Titan Iapetus and became the mother of Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, and Menoetius (all of whom would eventually be punished by Zeus for challenging his power);[15] and Perse (or Perseis), a consort of Helios, who was sometimes said to have been the mother of Aeetes (the king of Colchis) and the powerful sorceress Circe.[16]

Worship

The Oceanids were not generally worshipped in ancient Greece. However, sailors seem to have sometimes invoked them when praying for a safe and successful voyage.[17]

References

Notes

  1. Hesiod, Theogony 365, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  2. Hesiod, Theogony 346ff.

  3. On Eurynome with a fish tail, see Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.41.6. On the Oceanids in ancient art, see Lilly Kahil and Noëlle Icard-Gianolio, “Okeanides,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1994), 7:29–31.

  4. Hesiod, Theogony 337ff.

  5. Homeric Hymns 2.417ff.

  6. Callimachus, Hymns 3.13–14, 3.42ff.

  7. Hesiod, Theogony 361, 383ff, 775ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.2ff.

  8. Hesiod, Theogony 358, 886ff, 924ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.1, 1.3.6.

  9. Hesiod, Theogony 358, 907ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.3.1.

  10. Dione was called an Oceanid by Hesiod, but a daughter of Uranus and Gaia by others. See Hesiod, Theogony 353; cf. Homer, Iliad 5.370ff; Euripides, Helen 1098; Apollodorus, Library 1.1.3, 1.2.7, 1.3.1.

  11. Hesiod, Theogony 287ff, 981; Apollodorus, Library 2.5.10.

  12. Hesiod, Theogony 240ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.7.

  13. Hesiod, Theogony 265ff, 349.

  14. Pindar, Pythian Odes 4.102–3; Apollonius, Argonautica 2.1231ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.4.

  15. Hesiod, Theogony 507ff. This Clymene was also, in one tradition, a lover of Helios and the mother of Phaethon (known for his disastrous attempt to ride the chariot of the sun); see Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.750ff.

  16. Homer, Odyssey 10.135ff; Hesiod, Theogony 956; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.1; John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 174, 798, 1024, Chiliades 4.358; cf. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.45.1; Hyginus, Fabulae 154.

  17. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.1410ff.

Primary Sources

Greek

The earliest literary references to Oceanus and his daughters come from the Homeric epics (eighth century BCE). More detailed information can be found in the works of Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE), who gives a catalogue of the most important Oceanids in his Theogony. He also recounts the myths of several individual Oceanids, including Styx and Metis.

The Oceanids frequently surfaced throughout Greek literature. They appear in the Homeric Hymns, for example(mostly seventh to fifth centuries BCE); more specifically, a few of the Oceanids are named as playmates of Persephone in the second Hymn, the Hymn to Demeter. Prometheus Bound, a tragedy attributed (perhaps inaccurately) to Aeschylus (ca. 525/524–ca. 456/455 BCE), features a chorus of Oceanids. Callimachus (late fourth to mid-third century BCE) has Artemis ask Zeus for an entourage of sixty Oceanids in his third Hymn (the Hymn to Artemis).

Important references to the mythology and cult of the Oceanids can be found in some later works, notably the Library by the mythographer known as Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE/first few centuries CE) and the Description of Greece by Pausanias (ca. 115–ca. 180 CE). The role of the Oceanids in Orphism can be gleaned from the Orphic Hymns (third century BCE to second century CE), especially the fiftieth Hymn (the Hymn to the Nymphs).

The Oceanids continued to feature in later Greek literature—for instance, in the Dionysiaca, an epic poem about the early life of Dionysus composed by Nonnus (fifth century CE).

Roman

Scattered references to the Oceanids can be found in Roman literature—for instance, in the poems of Virgil (70–19 BCE). Some of the mythology of the Oceanids is also summarized in the Fabulae, a mythological handbook by Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later), which contains a brief catalogue of Oceanids.

Other

More information of the Oceanids can be found in later texts and commentaries, such as the scholia. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Ambühl, Annemarie. “Oceanids.” 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_e829560

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

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

Herter, Hand. “Okeaniden.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 17.2, 2302–8. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1893–1980.

Kahil, Lilly, and Noëlle Icard-Gianolio. “Okeanides.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 7, 29–31. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.

Larson, Jennifer. Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Smith, William. “Nymphae.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DN%3Aentry+group%3D12%3Aentry%3Dnymphae-bio-1.

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

Weizsäcker, P. “Okeaniden.” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 3, 805–9. Leipzig: Teubner, 1897–1902.

Citation

“Oceanids.” Mythopedia, January 06, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oceanids.

“Oceanids.” Mythopedia, 6 Jan. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oceanids. Accessed on 13 Jan. 2023.

(2023, January 6). Oceanids. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oceanids