Primordial Goddess Cosmologies

Thetis riding a hippocampus, Apulia, 430 bce

This is an excerpt from the beginning of my next book, Pythas, Melissae and Pharmakides, which is Vol II in my multivolume series Secret History of the Witches. Advance readings from that forthcoming book are shared and discussed in my online course by the same name, which began Jan. 2.

Several Greek myths of cosmogenesis have come down to us. It is often said that there are four: the Pelasgian, Homeric, Orphic and Olympian. But this reckoning leaves out an earlier cosmogony that survives in a papyrus scrap from the poet Alkman, in the 7th century bce. Little is known about him; some say he was from Sardis in Asia Minor, others claim from Sparta, where he died. The cosmogonic account appears in his commentary on a lost poem—and most of his own words are lost as well. The rare papyrus fragments reveal a creation story in which the goddess Thetis emerges from the unformed primordial unity, and she shapes it, like a craftswoman giving form.

The Cosmogony of Thetis

The name Thetis comes from the root tithemi, meaning to place, set up, establish. She is the founder who brings into being two principles, Poros (variously translated as “Path, Resource, Possibility”) and Tekmor (“Limit, Definition”). Through these complementary qualities, Thetis sets in motion light and darkness, day and night. [Knox, 179] Tekmor has also been translated as “ordinance” or as “marker,” apparently drawn from the word for a racing post. [Alkman Fragment 5 ( Scholia) Greek Lyric II Alcman, Fragments, in ]

This creation myth is mentioned in a second poem of Alkman, a Partheneion written for a girls’ ritual chorus. It calls Aisa (Destiny) and Poros (Path) “the oldest of the gods.” (Due to a lacuna in the papyrus, we only know that Poros is the second of the pair from marginal scholia written by later commentators.) Bernard Knox calls attention to an ancient scholiast who says of Alkman, ‘By Poros he means the same being as that represented by Khaos in Hesiod’s mythology’…” [Louvre Partheneion, 1.13f, in Knox, 180. Here I am using the phonetic spelling to set the word off from the modern meaning of “chaos.”]

Laura Slatkin observes that the passages in Alkman reflect “the belief that Thetis was not simply a cosmic force, but the cosmic force… the generative principle of the universe.” She emphasizes the fact that the creative action of Thetis “involves not primarily the bringing into being of matter, but rather the discrimination of objects, the ordering of space, the illumination of darkness with light.” [Slatkin, 13]

In the Spartan cosmogony, the goddess Thetis set things in order. “And Poros is as a beginning, Tekmor like an end.” A third element appeared, Skotos or Darkness, and after it came Day, and Moon, and Flashings. Knox remarks that this cosmogenesis from the sea goddess has other precedents in Greek literature (and outside it, as he compares Thetis to the Babylonian sea-goddess Tiamat). He also calls attention to differences between Alkman’s divine geneology and Hesiod’s Theogony. The Spartan poet describes the Muses as daughters of Sky and Earth (Ouranos and Ge), not the later Olympian parentage assigned to Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory). [Knox, 179-180] Again, he is drawing on an older cosmogony of the Titan deities.

Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant have compared Thetis to the female Titan Metis, “Intelligence.” Both are sea goddesses with the power of shapeshifting, which as Vernant points out, befits a cosmic deity who contains within herself all potential shapes and manifestations. And Thetis and Metis resemble each other in other ways; both are desired by Zeus, and both meet a disastrous end as that god attempts to forestall separate prophecies that each of these goddesses will bear a son who will be greater than his father, and overthrow his rule. Both goddesses use their power of metamorphosis to fight back against a sexual attacker. Metis “changed herself into all sorts of forms” in order to escape Zeus, and Thetis did the same with Peleus, as discussed below. [Detienne and Vernant, “Les ruses de l’intelligence: la métis des Grecs,” in Slatkin, 14]

Classical Greek myth calls Thetis one of the Okeanid Titans, a goddess of the waters who is leader of the fifty Nereids. In the Iliad, Thetis “the silver-footed” sits in a cave deep in the ocean, surrounded by a throng of Nereids (sea-goddesses). [Iliad, 24.84] Vase-paintings show her riding a hippocampus, a sea-creature that is horse in front and fish behind. (see featured image)Thetis was sculptured amidst her Nereids at her temple near Pharsalos in Thessaly. [Burkert, 172]

In southern Greece, the Messenians and Laconians also worshipped Thetis. The Spartans took captive her priestess, Cleo, in a war on Messenia, and she brought with her the ancient xoanan (wooden icon) of the goddess. Leandris, the wife of her captor, had a dream that instructed her to build a temple for Thetis, placing the xoanan in a secret chamber, and to install Cleo as priestess. The Lakonians were still offering great reverence to Thetis at that same temple in the 2nd century CE. [Pausanias, 3.14.4-5].

The might of Thetis is expressed in myths describing her as the savior of various gods. Thetis welcomes the exiled Dionysos, who leaps into the sea as he flees from Lycurgus. The goddess “received him in her bosom”, and gave him a bed of seaweed in the Erythraean sea. [Iliad, 6.123ff] When Hephaestos is cast down from Olympus, the sea goddesses Thetis and Eurynome break his fall and restore him to health on Lemnos. He stays with them for nine years, smithing cups and ornaments and spiral armbands for them, “working there in the hollow of the cave, and the stream of Okeanos around us went on forever with its foam and its murmur…” [Iliad 18.369. One version has Hephaestos cast down by his mother Hera because he was born with a shriveled foot; another says that Zeus threw him down for defending Hera against his advances. See Homeric Hymn to Apollo 316–321; Homer, Iliad 395–405.]

Most important of all, Thetis is described as the savior of Zeus. Achilles tells her, “You alone of all the gods” saved the king of the gods from a plot of other Olympians, by bringing a many-armed monster to protect him. [Iliad, 1.396ff] Quintus of Smyrna agreed that Thetis released Zeus from chains. Still other authors tell how after the goddess Themis prophesies that a son of Thetis will overthrow him, Zeus becomes terrified, and conspires to take this goddess down. Later we’ll return to the story of how Greek poets mythically demoted Thetis from her original identity as the Creatrix of cosmic order to become the unwilling captive bride of a mortal man. (And most surviving images of her depict this story, not her primordial powers of creation.)

The Homeric Cosmogony

A primeval sea-goddess appears in other early Greek cosmologies, though not as sole creator. In the Homeric version she is called “mother Tethys” and is paired with Okeanos, the world-circling waters. [Iliad 14. 200] These are the first beings, “whence the gods have risen.” [Iliad 14.200ff] (In this they resemble the Akkadian pair Tiamat and Apsu, who also have ocean attributes.) Walter Burkert suggested that Thetis and Tethys may be variant names for the same goddess, though they appear to come from different etymological roots. [Burkert 1990: 91-3]

The name Tethys means “grandmother” or “old woman.” She is the mother of many elder deities, including Dione, Eurynome, Metis, Amaltheia, Calypso, and Circe. She is mother of the world’s great rivers, such as Nilus, and the Okeanid goddesses. She also fostered the young Hera. (Long afterward, at Hera’s request, Tethys kept the the two Bear constellations circling around the poles, so that they would never descend below the horizon.) Some twelve centuries after Homer, as church and state struggled to slam the door on the pagan past, Nonnus invoked the ancient creation goddess Tethys, in language (“self-born”) that recalls the Egyptian litanies of Neith:

Tethys! Agemate and bedmate of Okeanos, ancient as the world, nurse of conmingled waters, selfborn, loving mother of children. [Dionysiaca 23. 280, tr. Rouse, in ]

Max Dashu

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