Greek Titan

Phoebe

Phoebe was a Greek Titan better known for her descendants than for her own exploits. Her daughter Leto went on to have an affair with Zeus and gave birth to the powerful Olympians Apollo and Artemis.

Top Questions

  • Did Phoebe fight against the Olympians?

    It is unknown whether Phoebe fought against the Olympians during the Titanomachy, the ten-year war between the gods and the Titans. Her role in the conflict is not stated in any surviving mythical texts. Even if she did, it did not make her daughters any less desirable to the gods.

  • What was Phoebe the goddess of?

    Phoebe was associated with brightness (one of her symbols was the moon) as well as prophecy (specifically, Apollo’s oracle at Delphi).

Overview

One of the original twelve Titans of Greek mythology Phoebe was the daughter of the primordial deities Gaia and Uranus. She married her brother Coeus, and together they had two daughters, Asteria and Leto. Through Leto, Phoebe was the grandmother of Apollo and Artemis, powerful gods of the Olympian pantheon.

Etymology

The name “Phoebe” (Greek Φοίβη, translit. Phoíbē) was derived from the ancient Greek adjective φοῖβος (phoîbos), meaning “bright” or “shining”; this name was also applied to Phoebe’s grandson Apollo, who was commonly referred to as Apollo Phoebus, or “Shining Apollo.” However, the ultimate etymology of the Greek phoîbos, and thus also of Phoebe’s name, remains uncertain.[1]

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    Phoebe Φοίβη (translit. Phoíbē)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [FEE-bee]/ˈfiːbi/

Epithets

In the Theogony, Hesiod refers to Phoebe with the epithet χρυσοστέφανος (chrysostéphanos, “golden-crowned”).[2]

Attributes

Phoebe’s precise attributes remain unclear, but her name (“the bright one”) suggests some association with light. She was also connected with oracles, both through her grandson Apollo as well as in her own right. 

Terracotta bell-krater with Apollo between Leto and Artemis

Bell krater showing Leto with her children Artemis and Apollo while offering libations to an altar (ca. 450 BCE).

Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

Family

The daughter of Gaia, mother of the earth, and Uranus, father of the heavens, Phoebe was part of a brood of Titans that included Coeus, CriusHyperionRheaOceanusIapetusTheaThemis, MnemosyneTethys, and Cronus.[3] Phoebe’s other siblings were the one-eyed monsters known as the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires, horrible creatures said to have a hundred hands each.

Phoebe married her brother Coeus, with whom she had two daughters. The first, Asteria, was a star goddess who (according to some traditions) eventually transformed herself into an island to avoid Zeus’ sexual advances.[4] Phoebe’s other child, Leto, mated with Zeus and bore Artemis and Apollo, Phoebe’s famous grandchildren. Phoebe had another, somewhat less celebrated grandchild as well: Hecate, the goddess of liminal spaces, crossroads, and witchcraft, said to be the daughter of Asteria and Perses.[5]

Family Tree

Mythology

Like many Titans, Phoebe seldom appeared in Greek texts. Her role in the Titanomachy and its aftermath, for example, is unsung and unknown. Hesiod’s Theogony, the most complete source for Greek myths on the origins of the cosmos, mentions her only twice. She first appears in a list of the children of Gaia and Uranus; according to Hesiod, Gaia bore “deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys.”[6] Cronus, who would eventually overthrow Uranus, was the youngest of Phoebe’s siblings.

Her second appearance comes soon after, when Hesiod describes her marriage to her brother Coeus:

Again, Phoebe came to the desired embrace of Coeus. Then the goddess through the love of the god conceived and brought forth dark-gowned Leto, always mild, kind to men and to the deathless gods, mild from the beginning, gentlest in all Olympus. Also she bare Asteria of happy name, whom Perses once led to his great house to be called his dear wife.[7] 

Herculaneum fresco depicting Phoebe (right) comforting her daughter Leto

This fresco, recovered from a wall in Herculaneum, depicts Phoebe (right) attempting to console her daughter Leto. The work is attributed to “Alexander of Athens,” an artist who remains shrouded in mystery. National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy.

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

Phoebe’s sparse mythos overlaps with that of her more important grandson, Apollo. In some traditions, Phoebe was the third guardian of the oracle at Delphi, after her mother Gaia and her sister Themis, and it was Phoebe who presented Delphi to Apollo as a birthday gift. Subsequently, Apollo added his grandmother’s name to his own, becoming Apollo Phoebus.[8]

Pop Culture

Phoebe’s influence continues to resonate in popular culture thanks to the many people (both real and fictional) named after her. Commonly used in Greek and Latin, her name has remained popular in languages descended from them.

References

Notes

  1.  Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1583.

  2.  Hesiod, Theogony 136.

  3.  Hesiod, Theogony 132ff; cf. Apollodorus, Library 1.1.3. Cf. also Plato, Timaeus 40e, where Theia seems to be counted as a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.

  4.  Callimachus, Hymn 4.36ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.4.1; Hyginus, Fabulae 53; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 3.73.

  5.  Hesiod, Theogony 409ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.4. However, there were also other versions of Hecate’s parentage.

  6.  Hesiod, Theogony 133–36, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  7.  Hesiod, Theogony 404–11, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  8.  Aeschylus, Eumenides 6ff.

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE): Phoebe’s genealogy is outlined in the Theogony.

  • Aeschylus (ca. 525/524 BCE–456/455 BCE): In the first lines of the tragedy Eumenides, Phoebe is said to have been the one who gave the oracle at Delphi to Apollo.

  • Diodorus of Sicily (ca. 90–30 BCE): The Library of History contains a rationalized account of Phoebe (and the other Titans), describing them as deified benefactors of early history in Book 5 (chapter 66).

  • Apollodorus (first century BCE/first few centuries CE): The Library, a mythological handbook, contains references to Phoebe.

Roman

  • Hyginus (first few centuries CE): The Fabulae, a Latin mythological handbook, contains references to Phoebe.

Secondary Sources

Citation

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

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

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

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

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

    Avi Kapach Profile Photo