Iris: Greek goddess of the rainbow and messenger between heaven and earth

(ORDO NEWS) — Anyone who is interested in Greek mythology will surely tell you that it is like going down a rabbit hole.

While most people are familiar with the main Greek gods and myths, the Greek pantheon is almost endless and there are so many minor gods and goddesses.

And some of the lesser known gods and goddesses have played a huge role in key myths and other stories.

And Iris, the Rainbow Goddess, is a perfect example. This is a minor character, but she played an important role in more than two major Greek events.

  • Who was Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow?

Iris was the daughter of the god Thaumas (god of the sea) and the goddess Electra (oceanids, varieties of water nymphs). Most of the Greek gods had a role to play, and this was true of Iris as well.

Like Hermes, Iris acted as a messenger of the gods. The difference is that if Hermes primarily served Zeus, then Iris mainly served Hera (the wife of Zeus).

Irida was commonly depicted in Greek art as a beautiful young woman with wings. She was often seen as the wife of Zephyr (one of the gods of the wind) and was sometimes depicted as the mother of Pothos (one of the sexual gods associated with Aphrodite).

Although Iris doesn’t have much of a mythology of her own, she still played an important role in Greek mythology. Several key Greek myths would not be the same without her.

Iris also appears as a messenger in countless Greek tales and epic poems. Below are some of the more famous roles of Iris – the goddess of the rainbow and Hera’s messenger.

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The battle of the gods with the titans, painted by Joachim Wtevel in 1600, is associated with Iris, or, better, with Iris’s sister, Arke
  • Iris’ role in Titanomachy through her sister Arke

Titanomachy is an early Greek myth centered on a war between gods and titans. In this story, Iris travels across the rainbow, carrying messages between gods and mortals.

Even though Iris is not the main character in this story, she plays an important supporting role.

In most versions of this story, Iris has a sister named Arke. According to the story, Arke betrays the gods and becomes the messenger of the titans.

After the end of the war, Zeus tears off Arch’s wings. He then gives wings to Pelea at her wedding. Peleus, in turn, gave them to his son Achilles.

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Morpheus and Iris, painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774-1833)
  • Iris and the Abduction of Persephone

Another famous Greek myth is the story of Hades and Persephone. Hades (god of the underworld) kidnapped Persephone (daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture) and made her his queen of hell.

In response to this, Demeter caused a severe famine, as a result of which mortals began to die at a terrifying rate. Fewer mortals meant fewer sacrifices to the gods.

This caused Zeus to send Iris to Demeter, demanding that she rejoin the gods and lift her deadly curse.

Since Hades did not return Persephone to her, Demeter refused. In the end, a compromise was reached in which Persephone spent half the year with Hades (autumn and winter) and half the year with her mother Demeter (spring and summer).

And Iris played a key role in the overall success of this agreement.

  • Iris sparks the Trojan War

Of all the tales in which she appears, Iris played her biggest role during the Trojan War (depending on the version, of course).

In Cypria, Stasin’s epic poem, it is Irida who informs the Spartan king Menelaus that his wife has run away with the Trojan prince Paris. It is this act that causes the whole war.

Iris also appears in Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad. In the fifth book of the Aeneid, Iris turns into the body of a Trojan woman. She then incites the local mothers and forces them to burn Aeneas’ ships.

In the Iliad, Irida is mentioned everywhere and often. She plays her usual role, carrying messages between gods and goddesses and mortals.

However, when writing The Odyssey, Homer seems to have decided that the role required more star power.

In the Odyssey, Hermes plays the role of the messenger. The images of Iris and Hermes in the Iliad and Odyssey are almost the same.

So, Iris was almost the messenger in the Odyssey, but in the end Homer preferred the more famous god.

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Carved in 1841, a marble sculpture of Iris as the goddess of the rainbow is exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria
  • Cult of Iris

Most of the important Greek gods had cults. In this context, cult simply means worship without all the modern connotations. The Greeks worshiped specific gods, built temples in their name and made sacrifices to them.

This was done in the hope of obtaining certain benefits. For example, Aphrodite – fertility, Demeter – a good harvest, Ares – success in battle, etc.

Temples or sanctuaries in the name of Iris have not been found. However, she may have had a small cult following.

In the book “Scientists at Dinner” Athenaeus (Greek writer) writes that the inhabitants of Delos made sacrifices to Iris. They sacrificed a kind of cheese called “basinia” to Irida.

The role of Iris in many tales means that she is also depicted on many vases and bas-reliefs. However, there are very few statues of her. They were usually reserved for big names.

Iris was, above all, a bound and gifted messenger god.

As previously mentioned, Iris appears in many more myths than those listed here. Frankly, in itself it is not very interesting.

She is nothing more than a minor character who cruises through myths and epic poems, delivering messages. In fact, it is an Olympic telephone line.

However, for those interested in learning more about Greek mythology, a character like Iris can be key.

Reading about Iris leads to a deeper understanding of the Greeks in general, because her story is woven into larger stories such as the Aeneid, the Iliad, and the Odyssey.

So by learning more about Iris, you will learn more about Titanomachy, Oceanids, Hades, Persephone and more.


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