Even Zeus Feared Nyx, Greek Goddess of the Night

By: Dave Roos  | 

Nyx
Nyx is often depicted as a shadowy figure in Greek mythology. delcarmat/Shutterstock

In Greek mythology, the goddess Nyx was one of the oldest deities in the universe, born in the first moments of creation from the yawning abyss of Chaos. Nyx was the personification of night and was so ancient and powerful that even mighty Zeus was afraid to cross her.

We spoke with Daniel Turkeltaub, a classics professor at Santa Clara University, to learn more about the mist-shrouded figure of Nyx, the chariot-riding queen of night and mother of death, deceit and dreams.

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A Primordial Female Force of Good and Evil

Nyx (whose name Turkeltaub says should be pronounced as "nooks") is one of the "primordial" godsprotogenoi in Greek — who were born of Chaos, the gaping void that existed before creation. According to Hesiod's "Theogony," an epic poem dating from the eighth century B.C.E., Nyx's sisters and brothers were Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (the Pit), Eros (Love) and Erebus (Darkness).

Through a "union in love" with her dark brother Erebus, Nyx gave birth to two "luminous" offspring, Aether (Divine Air) and Hemera (Day). Then things took a turn. In Hesiod's cosmology, Nyx next self-conceived a brood of baddies that included the Keres (spirits of Violent Death), Moros (Doom), Oizys (Misery), Apate (Deceit), Nemesis (Retribution) and the Moirai (the three "ruthless and avenging" Fates).

Hesiod attached negative descriptors to Nyx like "deadly Night" and "evil Night," but the ancient goddess was also the mother of more positive offspring like Hypnos (Sleep), the Oneiroi (Dreams), Geras (Old Age), Thanatos (Peaceful Death) and Philotes, which could mean either Friendship or Sex. "It is a nocturnal activity," says Turkeltaub.

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Nyx Was a Charioteer of the Sky

terra cotta vase, 500 BCE, Nyx, Hemera
This terra cotta vase shows Helios (the Sun) rising in his quadriga (4-horse chariot); above, Nyx (Night) drives away to the left and Hemera (Day) to the right. This vase can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Few ancient images of Nyx survive, but a stunning one comes from a terracotta vase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dating from 500 B.C.E.

The painted scene shows the hero Heracles offering a sacrifice to Helios (the Sun) as it rises. On either side of Helios are Nyx and Hemera, the goddesses of night and day, who each ride horse-drawn chariots in opposite directions as dawn breaks.

The ancient Greeks developed a sophisticated mythology to explain the unknown workings of the natural world, like the alternation of night and day.

"In Greek mythology, Nyx and her daughter Hemera share an abode at the end of the earth," says Turkeltaub. "When one leaves on her chariot, the other enters."

Here's how Hesiod describes it:

"Nyx (Night) and Hemera (Day) draw near and greet one another as they pass the great threshold of bronze. And while the one is about to go down into the house, the other one comes out the door. And the house never holds them both within; but always one is without the house passing over the earth, while the other stays at home and waits until the time for her journeying come."

In the vase painting, Nyx is swathed in gauzy robes, and there's a dark cloud or mist above her head. Hesiod describes her resting place in Tartarus as "the awful home of murky Night wrapped in dark clouds."

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Even Zeus Knew Not to Mess With Nyx

There aren't many "stories" associated with Nyx, says Turkeltaub, but the ancient Greek author Homer makes a passing reference in his epic poem, the "Iliad," that shows us the respect and even fear that Nyx commanded.

In this part of the "Iliad," the powerful goddess Hera hatched a plan to "lay in love" with Zeus, but she needed help from Hypnos, the god of Sleep and son of Nyx. If Hypnos would just lull Zeus into a deep slumber, Hera promised him thrones of gold.

Hypnos wasn't having it, though. He said that he played the same trick for Hera once before when she wanted to meddle in the Trojan War, and it didn't go well. Zeus woke up angry and "beat the gods up and down his house" in search of Hypnos, writes Homer.

Hypnos thought he was finished "had not Nyx (Night) who has power over gods and men rescued me," writes Homer. "I reached her in my flight, and Zeus let be, though he was angry, in awe of doing anything to swift Nyx's displeasure."

In other words, Zeus knew better than to tick off Nyx.

"The other gods do not mess with Nyx," says Turkeltaub. "She has a power that precedes Zeus. Nyx is a looming ancestral mother figure with a primordial power that other gods respect and revere."

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