Tethys the Primordial Mother

Tethys the Primordial Mother

UPDATE: This blog entry was originally published September 2022. You can shop new items from this collection here: Let Go and Let Goddess

Tethys the Primordial Mother
[Tee] + [This]
(/ˈtiːθɪs, ˈtɛθɪs/; Ancient Greek: Τηθύς, romanized: Tēthýs)

Greek Mythology
Primordial Goddess of fresh water and nursing mothers.
Her name was derived from the Greek word têthê meaning “nurse” or “grandmother.”

A Titan daughter of Gaia and Uranus, goddess of the primal font of fresh water which nourishes the earth. Mother of rivers, clouds, and water nymphs, wetnurse, and foster mother to Hera and others. In some traditions Tethys and Oceanus are the first primordial parents of the gods; in others, they are the only children of Gaia and Uranus, in turn giving birth to the Titans and all other gods.

Gaia and Uranus gave birth to the twelve Titans: Oceanus and Tethys, Hyperion and Theia, Coeus and Phoebe, Cronus and Rhea, Mnemosyne and Themis, Crius and Iapetus. Cronus overthrew his father Uranus, and, with Rhea, gave birth to the Olympians: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter, and Chiron. Zeus overthrew Cronus in a ten-year war called the Titanomachy during which Rhea gave her daughters (Hera, Hestia, and Demeter) to Tethys to care for, making Tethys the first foster mother and wetnurse.

She married her brother, the Titan Oceanus, God of the encircling sea that the Greeks believed surrounds the world. Their union produced the Potamoi, three thousand gods of the rivers and streams; the Oceanids, three thousand nymphs of springs and fountains; and the Nephelai, nymphs of the clouds (probably also three thousand). Three thousand is a number interpreted as meaning “innumerable.”

Tethys was mother to all the rivers, streams, clouds that bore water, and more. Greece being surrounded by water and waterways Tethys was significant. 

Let Go and Let Goddess Pose Sketch

Let Go & Let Goddess Pose Sketch

Some of the Potamoi are “Neilos (Nile), Alpheios (Alpheus), and deep-eddying Eridanos (Eridanus), Strymon and Maiandros (Meander), Istros (Istrus) of the beautiful waters, Phasis and Rhesos (Rhesus) and silver-swirling Akheloios (Achelous), Nessos (Nessus) and Rhodios (Rhodius), Heptaporos (Heptaporus) and Haliakmon (Haliacmon), Grenikos (Grenicus) and Aisepos (Aesepus), and Simoeis, who is godlike, Hermos (Hermus) and Peneios (Peneus), and Kaikos (Caicus) strongly flowing, and great Sangarios (Sangarius), and Ladon, and Parthenios (Parthenius), Euenos (Evenus) and Ardeskos (Ardescus), and Skamandros (Scamander), who is holy.” [1]

The first of the Oceanids are “Peitho, Admete, Ianthe and Elektra (Electra), Doris and Prymno and Ourania (Urania) like a goddess, Hippo and Klymene (Clymene), Rhodeia and Kallirhoe (Callirhoe), Zeuxo and Klytia (Clytia), and Idyia and Pasithoe, Plexaura and Galaxaura and lovely Dione, Melobosis and Thoe, and Polydora the shapely, Kerkeis (Cerceis) of the lovely stature, and ox-eyed Plouto (Pluto), Xanthe and Akaste (Acaste), Perseis and Ianeira, Petraie the lovely, and Menestho, and Europa, Metis and Eurynome, Telesto robed in saffron, Khryseis (Chryseis), and Asia, and alluring Kalypso (Calypso), Eudora and Tykhe (Tyche), and Amphiro and Okyroe (Ocyroe), and Styx, who among them all has the greatest eminence.” [1]

I was unable to locate a list of the Nephelai.

Let Go and Let Goddess in Progress
Let Go & Let Goddess Boards in Progress

Tethys pulled the waters through underground aquifers producing fresh water, washing and nursing all newborns. There is some belief that Tethys was long estranged from her husband, reflecting the separation of the waters. I think she needed a break from having so many kids.

Tethys is sometimes depicted with wings on her forehead, a rudder or ore, and a Ketos (Cetus):  a sea monster with the head of a boar or greyhound and a serpent body. Depicted with her husband Oceanus and on her own, she frequently adorned the walls of public baths.

While both Tethys and Oceanus were neutral during the overthrow of Uranus and the Titanomachy, they fought in the Gigantomachy on the side of Zeus. Because of this, they were honored as primordial gods and parents/foster parents of the Olympians. 

Two stories involving Tethys tell us about her character.

The young woman Callisto, meaning “the most beautiful,” was a follower of the goddess Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and had sworn an oath to remain a virgin for all her life. However, Zeus saw her one day and perused her until he succeeded in seducing her (rape). Callisto found herself pregnant and frightened and attempted to hide it from Artemis, but when Artemis found out she turned Callisto into a bear cursed to live in the wilderness and be killed by hunters. Callisto gave birth to a son Arcas, meaning “born by a bear.” Arcas grew up and became the ruler of Arcadia, and while hunting one day came upon a bear, unbeknownst to him his mother. Zeus, seeing the matricide about to take place, turned them both into constellations, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (Big and Small Bear). Still hurt by her husband Zeus’ infidelity, Hera went to Tethys (her foster mother) for assistance. Tethys forbid the bear from drinking or bathing in the waters of the Ocean which is why Ursa Major never touches the horizon. (I might keep her away from my man too.)

Aesacus became enamored of Hesperia (or Asterope) and pursued her. As she ran, she stepped on a snake, was bitten, and died. Aesacus, mourning Hesperia, went to the highest cliff and jumped into the ocean with the intention of suicide, but Tethys turned him into a diving bird, so he was unharmed when he hit the water. Still filled with sorrow and guilt, he dives for all time from the cliff into the sea. 

Hesperia was the daughter of Cebren, granddaughter of Tethys. Aesacus is also reported to be a grandson of Tethys. I think that Tethys action not only saved her Aesacus but also punished him for the death of her granddaughter.

Tethys the Primordial Mother

Tethys Primordial Mother

Tethys is sometimes interpreted as being overly loyal, particularly to Hera. I see that she found ways to navigate challenges by finding a middle way, protecting, or gently punishing (with the weight of their own guilt) when necessary. She embodies everything it is to be a good mother, mother to all. 

Depicted here with a Ketos twisting in the waters beneath her, light penetrating the clear fresh waters, hair flying like wings. The Primordial Mother. Do you need a mother? She can be your mother too.

[1] Hesiod, Theogony 337 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.)

UPDATE: This blog entry was originally published September 2022. You can shop new items from this collection here: Let Go and Let Goddess

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