Tethys (mythology)

Mosiac (detail) of Tethys, from Philipopolis (modern Shahba, Syria), fourth-century AD, Shahba Museum.

In Greek mythology, Tethys (/ˈtθs, ˈtɛθs/; Greek: Τηθύς), was a Titan daughter of Uranus and Gaia, and the wife of her brother the Titan-god Oceanus, and the mother by him of the river gods and the Oceanids. Tethys had no active role in Greek mythology, and no established cults.[1]


Tethys was one of the Titan offspring of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth).[2] Hesiod lists her Titan syblings as Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Cronus.[3] Tethys married her brother, Oceanus, an enormous river encircling the world, and was, by him, the mother of numerous sons, who were river-gods, and numerous daughters, known as the Oceanids.[4]

According to Hesiod, there were three thousand river-gods.[5] These included: Achelous, the god of the Achelous River, the largest river in Greece, who gave his daughter in marriage to Alcmaeon,[6] and was defeated by Heracles in a wrestling contest for the right to marry Deianira;[7] Alpheus, who fell in love with the nymph Arethusa, pursuing her to Syracuse, where she was transformed into a spring by Artemis;[8] and Scamander, who fought on the side of the Trojans during the Trojan War, and, offended when Achilles polluted his waters with the a large number of Trojan corpses, overflowed his banks nearly drowning Achilles.[9]

Also according to Hesiod, there were three thousand Oceanids.[10] These included: Metis, Zeus' first wife, whom Zeus impregnated with Athena and then swallowed;[11] Eurynome, Zeus' third wife, and mother of the Charites;[12] Doris, the wife of Nereus and mother of the Nereids;[13] Callirhoe, the wife of Chrysaor and mother of Geryon;[14] Clymene, the wife of Iapetus, and mother of Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus;[15] Perseis, wife of Helios and mother of Circe and Aeetes;[16] Idyia, wife of Aeetes and mother of Medea;[17] and Styx, goddess of the river Styx, and the wife of Pallas and mother of Zelus, Nike, Kratos, and Bia.[18]

Passages in a section of the Iliad called the Deception of Zeus, suggest the possibility that Homer knew a tradition in which Oceanus and Tethys (rather than Uranus and Gaia, as in Hesiod) were the parents of the Titans.[19] Twice Homer has Hera describe the pair as "Oceanus, from whom the gods are sprung, and mother Tethys",[20] while in the same passage Hypnos describes Oceanus as "from whom they all are sprung".[21] Gantz, points out that "mother" may simply refer to the fact that Tethys was Hera's foster mother for a time, as Hera tells us in the lines immediately following, while the reference to Oceanus as the genesis of the gods "might be simply a formulaic epithet indicating the numberless rivers and springs descended from Okeanos" (compare with Iliad 21.195197).[22] However, for M. L. West, these lines suggests a myth in which Oceanus and Tethys are the "first parents of the whole race of gods."[23] Perhaps as an attempt to reconcile this possible conflict between Homer and Hesiod, Plato, in his Timaeus, has Uranus and Gaia as the parents of Oceanus and Tethys, and Oceanus and Tethys as the parents of Cronus and Rhea and the other Titans, as well as Phorcys.[24]


Mosaic (detail) of Tethys from Antioch, Turkey, Hatay Archaeology Museum 9095.

Tethys played no active part in Greek mythology, the only early story concerning Tethys, is what Homer has Hera briefly relate in the Iliad's Deception of Zeus passage.[25] There, Hera says that, when Zeus was in the process of deposing Cronus, she was given by her mother Rhea to Tethys and Oceanus, for safekeeping, and that they "lovingly nursed and cherished me in their halls".[26] Hera relates this while dissembling that she is on her way to visit Oceanus and Tethys, in hopes of reconciling her foster parents, who angry with each other, are no longer having sexual relations.

Originally Oceanus' consort, at a later time Tethys came to be identified with the sea, and In Hellenistic and Roman poetry Tethys' name came to be used as a poetic term for the sea.[27]

The only other story involving Tethys is an apparently late astral myth concerning the polar constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear), which was thought to represent the catasterism of Callisto, who was transformed into a bear, and placed by Zeus among the stars. The myth explains why the constellation never sets below the horizon, saying that since Callisto had been Zeus's lover, she was forbidden by Tethys from "touching Ocean's deep", out of concern for her foster-child Hera, Zeus's jealous wife.[28]

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Tethys turns Aesacus into a diving bird.[29]

Tethys was sometimes confused with another sea goddess, the sea-nymph Thetis, the wife of Peleus and mother of Achilles.[30]

Tethys as Tiamat

M. L. West detects in the Iliad's Deception of Zeus passage an allusion to a possible archaic myth "according to which [Tethys] was the mother of the gods, long estranged from her husband," speculating that the estrangement might refer to a separation of "the upper and lower waters ... corresponding to that of heaven and earth", which would parallel the story of "Apsū and Tiamat in the Babylonian cosmology, the male and female waters which were originally united (En. El. I. 1 ff.)", but that "by Hesiod's time the myth may have been almost forgotten, and Tethys remembered only as the name of Oceanus' wife."[31] This possible correspondence between Oceanus and Tethys, and Apsū and Tiamat, has been noticed by several authors, with Tethys' name possibly having been derived from that of Tiamat.[32]


The Sophilos Dinos, early sixth century BC, London 1971.11-1.1

Representations of Tethys prior to the Roman period are rare.[33] Tethys appears, identified by inscription (ΘΕΘΥΣ), as part of an illustration of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis on the early sixth century BC Attic black-figure "Erskine" dinos by Sophilos (British Museum 1971.111-1.1).[34] Tethys, accompanied by Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, follows close behind Oceanus, at the end of a procession of gods invited to the wedding. Tethys is also conjectured to be represented in a similar illustration of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis depicted on the early sixth century BC Attic black-figure François Vase (Florence 4209).[35] Tethys probably also appeared as one of the gods fighting the Giants in the Gigantomachy frieze of the second century BC Pergamon Altar.[36] Only fragments of the figure remain, a part of a chiton, below Oceanus' left arm, and a hand clutching a large tree branch visible, behind Oceanus' head.

Mosaic (detail) of Tethys and Oceanus, excavated from the House of Menander, Daphne (modern Harbiye, Turkey), third century AD, Hatay Archaeology Museum 1013.

The above are the only artistic representations of Tethys known prior to the Roman period. However, during the second to fourth centuries AD, Tethys, sometimes with Oceanus, sometimes alone, became a relatively frequent feature of mosaics decorating baths, pools and triclinia, in the Greek East, particularly in Antioch and its suburbs.[37] Her identifying attributes are wings sprouting from her forehead, a rudder/oar, and a "ketos", a creature from Greek mythology with the head of a dragon and the body of a snake.[38] The earliest of these mosaics, identified as Tethys, decorated a triclinium overlooking a pool, excavated from the House of the Calendar in Antioch, dated to shortly after AD 115 (Hatay Archaeology Museum 850).[39] Tethys, reclining on the left, with Oceanus reclining on the right, has long hair and a winged forehead, is nude to the waste, with draped legs. A ketos twines around her raised right arm. Other mosaics of Tethys with Oceanus include: Hatay Archaeology Museum 1013 (from the House of Menander, Daphne),[40] Hatay Archaeology Museum 9095,[41] and Baltimore Museum of Art 1937.126 (from the House of the Boat of Psyches: triclinium).[42]

In other mosaics, Tethys appears without Oceanus. One of these is a fourth century AD mosaic from a pool (probably a public bath) found at Antioch, now installed in Boston, Massachusetts at the Harvard Business School's Morgan Hall, and formerly at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC (Dumbarton Oaks 76.43).[43] Besides the Sophilos dinos, this is the only other representation of Tethys identified by inscription. Here Tethys, with a winged forehead, rises from the sea bare shouldered, with long dark hair parted in the middle. A golden rudder rests against her right shoulder. Others include: Hatay Archaeology Museum 9097,[44] Shahba Museum (in situ),[45] Baltimore Museum of Art 1937.118 (from the House of the Boat of Psyches: Room six),[46] and Memorial Art Gallery 42.2.[47]

Toward the end of the period represented by these mosaics, Tethys' iconography appears to merge with that of another sea goddess Thalassa, the Greek personification of the sea (thalassa being the Greek word for the sea).[48] Such a transformation would be consistent with the frequent use of Tethys' name as a poetic reference to the sea in Roman poetry (see above).

Genealogical chart

Modern use of the name

Tethys, a moon of the planet Saturn, and the prehistoric Tethys Ocean are named after this goddess.


  1. Burkert, p. 92.
  2. Hesiod, Theogony 132138; Apollodorus, 1.1.3. Compare with Diodorus Siculus, 5.66.13, which says that the Titans (including Tethys) "were born, as certain writers of myths relate, of Uranus and Gê, but according to others, of one of the Curetes and Titaea, from whom as their mother they derive the name".
  3. Apollodorus adds Dione to this list, while Diodorus Siculus leaves out Theia.
  4. Hesiod, Theogony 337370; Homer, Iliad 200210, 14.300304, 21.195197; Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 137138 (Sommerstein, pp. 458, 459), Seven Against Thebes 310311 (Sommerstein, pp. 184, 185); Hyginus, Fabulae Preface (Smith and Trzaskoma, p. 95). For Tethys as mother of the river gods, see also: Diodorus Siculus, 4.69.1, 72.1. For Tethys as mother of the Oceanids, see also: Apollodorus, 1.2.2; Callimachus, Hymn 3.4045 (Mair, pp. 62, 63); Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, 242244 (Seaton, pp. 210, 211).
  5. Hesiod names 25 river gods: Nilus, Alpheus, Eridanos, Strymon, Maiandros, Istros, Phasis, Rhesus, Achelous, Nessos, Rhodius, Haliacmon, Heptaporus, Granicus, Aesepus, Simoeis, Peneus, Hermus, Caicus, Sangarius, Ladon, Parthenius, Evenus, Aldeskos, and Scamander.
  6. Apollodorus, 3.7.5.
  7. Apollodorus, 1.8.1, 2.7.5.
  8. Smith, s.v. "Alpheius".
  9. Homer, Iliad 20.74, 21.211 ff..
  10. Hesiod names 41 Oceanids: Peitho, Admete, Ianthe, Electra, Doris, Prymno, Urania, Hippo, Clymene, Rhodea, Callirhoe, Zeuxo, Clytie, Idyia, Pasithoe, Plexaura, Galaxaura, Dione, Melobosis, Thoe, Polydora, Cerceis, Plouto, Perseis, Ianeira, Acaste, Xanthe, Petraea, Menestho, Europa, Metis, Eurynome, Telesto, Chryseis, Asia, Calypso, Eudora, Tyche, Amphirho, Ocyrhoe, and Styx.
  11. Hesiod, Theogony 886900; Apollodorus, 1.3.6
  12. Hesiod, Theogony 907909; Apollodorus, 1.3.1. Other sources give the Charites other parents, see Smith, s.v. "Charis".
  13. Hesiod, Theogony 240264; Apollodorus, 1.2.7.
  14. Hesiod, Theogony 286288; Apollodorus, 2.5.10.
  15. Hesiod, Theogony 351, however according to Apollodorus, 1.2.3, another Oceanid, Asia was their mother by Iapetus;
  16. Hesiod, Theogony 956957; Apollodorus, 1.9.1.
  17. Hesiod, Theogony 958962; Apollodorus, 1.9.23.
  18. Hesiod, Theogony 383385; Apollodorus, 1.2.4.
  19. Gantz, pp.1112; Hard, pp. 3637, p. 40; Burkert, pp. 9192. According to Epimenides (see Fowler, p. 7), the first two beings, Night and Aer, produced Tartarus, who in turn produced two Titans (possibly Oceanus and Tethys) from whom came the world egg.
  20. Homer, Iliad 14.201, 302 [= 201].
  21. Homer, Iliad 245.
  22. Gantz, p. 11.
  23. West 1997, p. 197.
  24. Gantz, pp.1112; Plato, Timaeus 40de.
  25. Gantz, p. 28: "For Tethys, there are no myths at all, save for Hera’s comment in the ‘’Iliad’’ that she was given by Rhea to Tethys to raise when Zeus was deposing Kronos"; Burkert, p. 92: “Tethys is in no way an active figure in Greek mythology”; West 1997, p. 147: "In early poetry she is merely an inactive mythological figure who lives with Oceanus and has borne his children."
  26. Homer, Iliad 14.201204.
  27. West 1966, p. 204 136. Τῃθύν; West 1997, p. 147; Hard, p. 40; Matthews, p. 199. According to Matthews the "metonymy 'Tethys' = 'sea' seems to occur first in Hellenistic poetry", see for example Lycophron, Alexandria 1069 1069 (Mair, pp. 582583)), becoming a frequent occurrence in Latin poetry, for example appearing nine times in Lucan.
  28. Hard, p. 40; Hyginus, Fabulae 177; Astronomica 2.1; Ovid, Fasti 2.191192 (Frazer, pp. 70, 71); Metamorphoses 2.508530.
  29. Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.784795.
  30. This happened "even in antiquity", according to Burkert, p. 92.
  31. West 1966, p. 204.
  32. West 1997, pp. 147148; Burkert, pp. 9193. For a discussion of the possibility of oriental sources for the Illiad's Deception of Zeus passage, see Budelmann and Haubold, pp. 2022.
  33. For a discussion of Tethy's iconography see Jentel, pp. 11931195.
  34. LIMC Tethys I (S) 1 (detail showing figures with inscriptions: image 5 of 32); Beazley Archive 350099; Burkert, p. 202; Gantz, p. 28; Williams, pp. 27 fig. 34, 29, 3132; Perseus: London 1971.11-1.1 (Vase); British Museum 1971,1101.1.
  35. LIMC Okeanos 3; Beazley archive 300000; Perseus Florence 4209 (Vase). The identification as Tethys is accepted by Beazley, p. 27, and Gantz, p. 28, but found "unconvincing" by Carpenter p. 6. This vase is unremarked upon by Jentel, who says that the Sophilos dinos Tethys (LIMC Tethys I (S) 1) is the "seule representation de [Tethys] à l'époque archaique".
  36. LIMC Tethys I (S) 2 (Image 5 of 56); Jentel, p. 1195; Queyrel, p. 67; Pollit, p. 96.
  37. For a discussion of this group of mosaics, see Jentel, 11941195, which lists 15 Roman period Tethys mosaics (Tethys I (S) 317), and Wages, pp. 119128. Doro Levi identified the sea goddess in the Antioch mosaics as Thetis, however according to Wages, p. 126, "Neither the inscriptions nor the attributes in this group of mosaics support Doro Levi's identification". See also Kondoleon, p. 152 with p. 153 n. 2, which, in discussing one of these mosaics (Baltimore Museum of Art 1937.118, see below), says that "although the Baltimore goddess does not have any other attributes or label, she is convincingly identified as Tethys" saying further (in the note) that "Levi identified her as Thetis without much evidence, but Wages makes a good argument for identifying her as Tethys". Jentel identifies these mosaics as Tethys, while noting, p. 1195, that "Dès l'Antiquité et encore actuellement, certains auteurs ont confound [Tethys] avec la Néréeid Thetis."
  38. Jentel, p. 1195; Wages, p. 125.
  39. LIMC Tethys I (S) 5; Wages, pp. 120124, fig. 2, p. 127; Hatay Archaeology Museum 850; Campbell 1988, pp. 6061 (identified as Thetis).
  40. LIMC Tethys I (S) 15; Wages, p. 123 n. 24, fig. 8, p. 127; Hatay Archaeology Museum 1013.
  41. LIMC Tethys I (S) 16; Hatay Archaeology Museum 9095.
  42. LIMC Tethys I (S) 17; Wages, p. 127; Baltimore Museum of Art 1937.126.
  43. LIMC Tethys I (S) 7; Wages, 119128; Jentel, p. 1195; Campbell 1988, p. 49.
  44. LIMC Tethys I (S) 3; Wages, pp. 125, 128; Eraslan, p. 458; Hatay Archaeology Museum 9097.
  45. LIMC Tethys I (S) 10; Wages, p. 122, fig. 7, p. 125; Dunabin, p. 166.
  46. LIMC Tethys I (S) 11; Kondoleon, pp. 3839; Wages, pp. 120121, figs. 3, 4, p. 127; Baltimore Museum of Art 1937.118.
  47. LIMC Tethys I (S) 12; Wages, p. 127; Memorial Art Gallery 42.2.
  48. Wages, pp. 124126; Jentel, p. 1195; Cahn, p. 1199; Campbell 1998, p. 20.
  49. Hesiod, Theogony 132138, 337411, 453520, 901906, 915920; Caldwell, pp. 811, tables 1114.
  50. Although usually the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, as in Hesiod, Theogony 371374, in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (4), 99100, Selene is instead made the daughter of Pallas the son of Megamedes.
  51. According to Hesiod, Theogony 507511, Clymene, one of the Oceanids, the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, at Hesiod, Theogony 351, was the mother by Iapetus of Atlas, Menoetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus, while according to Apollodorus, 1.2.3, another Oceanid, Asia was their mother by Iapetus.
  52. According to Plato, Critias, 113d114a, Atlas was the son of Poseidon and the mortal Cleito.
  53. In Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 18, 211, 873 (Sommerstein, pp. 444, 445 n. 2, 446, 447 n. 24, 538, 539 n. 113) Prometheus is made to be the son of Themis.


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