The literature inherited from Classical Greece describes a world of many deities, many gods and goddesses of varying power who govern natural forces and individual places. Their fortunes rise and fall across divine generations, with groups rising to and falling from power in turn–while some linger on. One such character is Tethys, a Titan and a goddess of the waters.
Tethys Origin and Character
Tethys was born to Uranus and Gaea, the personifications of heaven and earth, respectively. One of the twelve Titans of the first generation, she is herself an embodiment of a major natural concept: fresh water. The embodiment is particularly apt, as without water–the chemical–earthly life cannot flourish, and promoting growth and life is traditionally associated with feminine figures.
There is not much direct description of Tethys in Classical literature, though she does appear in reference in Greek literature and as a figure in Roman mosaic art. What is revealed of her character in such works, though, is largely nurturing and tied to the natural world. In that, Tethys is a benign figure, unlike many of the more commonly known Titans of Classical myth.
Tethys is important as the wife of Oceanus, the personification of salt water. With him, she gave rise to the ocean nymphs, the Oceanids, as well as to three thousand river spirits, the Potamoi. Indeed, the Potamoi are themselves often important figures, including the personifications of such rivers as the Nile and the legendary Styx. She does not always appear alongside Oceanus, though. In Roman baths, particularly, she appears alone, which makes sense, since the baths were typically fresh-water features.
She is also important as a foster-mother to Hera, the queen of the Greek pantheon, which is another apt association. Hera is, among others, goddess of childbirth, and water figures heavily in delivering children.
It is in the capacity as foster-mother to Hera that Tethys receives most direct attention in Classical literature. In a passage in Homer’s Iliad, Hera claims to be off to visit Tethys to cover her actual visit to Aphrodite for training in the latter’s particular skills. Calling on an old caretaker occasions no comment or investigation, and Tethys comes off as a passive enabler of deceit, just as even fresh waters have hidden depths and can permit things to move in secret.
It is also in her capacity as foster-mother to Hera that Tethys is involved in the myth surrounding the Great Bear constellation. The story holds that the Great Bear was the final form of the nymph Callisto, whom Zeus–Hera’s husband–had taken as a lover and placed in the stars as a memorial. Tethys, out of concern for her foster-daughter, refused to accept Callisto, denying her the rest in the ocean that other constellations, which cross the horizon, receive.
Tethys continues to appear in contexts outside the Classical. For one, she gives her name to one of the major moons of Saturn. The moon in question is, interestingly enough, composed of water and ice. Various measurements that have been taken of the moon suggest that it is composed largely of fresh water, making the name a fortunate one.
Tethys also gives her name to a primordial ocean, the Tethys Ocean or Tethys Sea. Geological records suggest that it was an equatorial water to the west of the supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana. Those same records suggest that the former Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea–both fresh-water seas–are remnants of the Tethys. Even in geology, then, Tethys is the parent of bodies of fresh water, a legacy that has endured in fact longer than any real concept of the goddess has existed.
Descriptions of Tethys can be found in the works of Aristotle (Metaphysics), Hesiod (Theogony), Homer (The Iliad), Plato, and others.
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