Theia

Categories: Gods > Affects & Attributes
Gods > Titanic Gods

1 Introduction

According to theoi.com (off-site link), Theia (gr. Θεία Theía, lat. Thīa) “was the Titan goddess of sight (thea) and the shining ether of the bright, blue sky (aithre). She was also, by extension, the goddess who endowed gold and silver with their brilliance and intrinsic value. Theia bore the Titan Hyperion three shining children—Helios the Sun, Eos the Dawn, and Selene the Moon. Her name was derived from the Greek words thea ‘sight’ and theiazô ‘prophesy’. She was also named Aithre (Aethra) ‘Blue-Sky’ and Euryphaessa ‘Wide-Shining’.”

This, to put it bluntly, is incorrect. Theia was not a widely recognized goddess, be that “of sight” or anything else. Nor is her name derived from θέα théa, ‘sight’, or θειάζω theiázō, ‘to be inspired, to divine’. It is nothing other than the word θεία theía, ‘divine (fem.)’, its use as a name perhaps modelled on that of the goddess Ῥεία Rheía. The first time she appears in extant literature, after all, is in Hesiod’s list of the Titans and Titanesses, just before Rheia: “Then, / after sleeping with Ouranos, she (=Earth) gave birth to deep-eddying Ōkeanós, / Koîos, Kreîos, Hyperíōn, Iapetós, / Theía, Rheía, Thémis, Mnemosýnē, / gold-wreathed Phoíbē and lovely Tēthýs” (Hesiod, Theogony 132–136). Her only mention after this is as the parent, with Hyperion, of the Sun, the Dawn and the Moon (Theogony 371–374). So, at least on this last point, theoi.com is right.

Apart from these two occurrences in Hesiod, Theia does not figure in archaic Greek poetry at all. In classical and post-classical literature, she is viewed as a peculiarly Hesiodic figure, potentially even his invention. The doxographer Aëtius writes: “In the sixth place, (people) took up (among the gods) that which had been invented by the poets; for Hesiod, wishing to give gods as ancestors of the begotten (gods), introduced begetters for them, such as the following: ‘Koîos, Kreîos, Hyperíōn, Iapetós’; on this account, this (group of gods) is called mythical” (Pseudo-Plutarch, Opinions of the Philosophers 880c). Theia is not mentioned explicitly here, but unlike the names that follow after hers (Rhea, Themis, etc.), her function in the Theogony, like that of a Koios or Kreios, appears to be purely genealogical.

This is further underlined by the fact that, where Hesiod has Theia, other authors have a different name, Euryphaessa in the Homeric Hymn to Helios, and later Aethra in Hyginus’ Genealogies. The idea that these other sources are really referring to Theia, only under different names, is absurd. Since Theia is hardly more than a name to begin with, authors who use another name must be taken at face value.

(As for the equation of the goddess Ikhnaía or Ikhnaíē with Theia, which in theoi.com is presented as fact rather than speculation, this is even more seriously wrong. She is named as one of the “greatest goddesses”, “Diṓnē, Rheíē, Ikhnaíē, Thémis and much-wailing Amphitrítē” [Homeric Hymn to Apollon 93–94]. Theoi.com opines that the “greatest goddesses” are the Titanesses, and that therefore “Amphitrite stands in the place of Tethys, Dione is equivalent to Phoibe, and Ikhnaie ‘the tracing goddess’ is Theia.” But nowhere else in archaic Greek poetry are these supposed equivalences attested, and nothing in the text suggests we should see this as a list of Titanesses only. The next line even explicitly says that all “the other immortals (fem.), except white-armed Hera”, were also there! Nor do ancient sources agree with theoi.com’s interpretation, since they take Ikhnaia as a byname of Themis – Themis of the town Ikhnai in Macedonia – instead of a separate goddess [e.g., Aelius Herodianus, On Orthography, ed. Lentz, vol. 3.2, p. 527] and even call her a daughter of the Sun [Lycophron, Alexandra 129], not his mother.)

So, to reiterate: Theia appears only in Hesiod’s Theogony, where she has a purely genealogical function, and in later authors who engaged with the Theogony. Due to her marginality, it cannot be said that she is the goddess “of” anything, nor can other names that serve similar genealogical functions be referred back to her. Hesiod is not the standard from which to measure all other texts; in many ways, the Theogony is just as idiosyncratic as any other ancient work of mythology or mythography.


2 Theia in Pindar, Isthmian Ode 5

The only other truly noteworthy appearance of Theia in poetry is in Pindar’s Isthmian Ode 5, which begins, “Mother of the Sun (Hā́lios), much-named Theia, on your account humans consider gold to be mighty and far above other things; for ships contending in the Sea (póntos) and horses yoked to chariots become marvellous (thaumastaí) in their fast-whirling contests through your honor (timā́), o queen (ṓnassa)!” In the surviving literature, this seems to be the first time that Theia is connected to sight (théa), although Pindar is less than clear about it.

For some more clarity, we must turn to the ancient scholia. They tell us that the first line, “Mother of the Sun, much-named Theia” is “following Hesiod; for he makes Theia the mother of the Sun in his genealogy: ‘Theia bore the great Sun, and the brilliant Moon, […] gave birth after being overcome in love with Hyperion’ (Theogony 371; 374).”

Another explanation – the one which theoi.com ahistorically projects back onto Hesiod – would make Theia the goddess Sight: “In the genealogies, they make the Sun the child of Theia because she is the cause (aítion) of sight (théa) and vision (ópsis) for us, and she has the same name (homōnýmōs) as the affect of vision, in the same way that (the gods) Eros and Elpis (have the same name as the affects of ‘love’ and ‘hope’).”

“But there are others who say that her name is coined from thêin (‘to run’), because the Sun is always in motion; by the same rationale, Hyperion is his father, because (the Sun) passes (iénai) above (hypér) us.”

The next line and a half, “on your account humans consider gold to be mighty”, are explained as follows: “We know that Pindar is fond of gold throughout. And here he shows his money-loving disposition by praising wealth and subtextually indicating that the persons whom he is praising should repay Pindar with gold.”

“From Theia and Hyperion comes the Sun, and from the Sun, gold. And to each of the planets, a certain matter is attributed: gold to the Sun, silver to the Moon, iron to Mars, lead to Saturn, electrum to Jupiter, tin to Mercury, bronze to Aphrodite.”

The scholia also give a paraphrase of the whole passage: “Much-named and reverend Theia, for your sake people believe that gold is very strong, beyond other possessions. For both ships contending in the sea (thaláttē), i.e., travelling for business, and horses yoked to chariots, and those who are in contests in general, become marvellous and famous in their contests at sea on account of your honor, (i.e.), gold, o lady! […]

“For your sake, he says, o Theia, we have come to hold gold in honor and admire (ethaumásamen) the races of ships and horses. For if we could not see (thea-) them, we would not admire them.”

In sum, then, Pindar seems to have wanted to speak about the central role of sight (théa) in human pursuits, and fastened onto Hesiod’s Theia, allowing him to treat Sight as a goddess. In calling her “much-named” (polyṓnymos), i.e., famous, he was speaking truthfully about sight, and respectfully about the goddess, but as a goddess, Theia had been obscure.


3 Theia in the ancient exegesis of Hesiod

After Pindar, Theia still remained marginal and obscure, and discussions of her are largely confined to poetic exegesis or mythography (e.g., D-Scholia on Iliad 8.480; scholia on Euripides, Trojan Women 855; pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 1.2; 1.8), as in a scholium on Euripides’ phrase Aelíou Selenaía, “Moon (child) of Sun”: “Hesiod says that the Moon is the sister of the Sun: ‘Theia bore the great Sun and the brilliant Moon’; but Aeschylus and those more inclined to natural philosophy (physikṓteroi), (say the Moon is the) daughter (of the Sun), insofar as she shares in the solar light. And indeed, the Moon changes her appearance in relation to her distance from the Sun” (Scholia on Euripides, Phaedra 175).

The poets themselves rarely mention her, even as the Sun became an ever more central deity. In Latin poetry, there is only a single mention that I could find, Catullus 66.44, where the Sun is called the progeny of Thia. There are not many more in Greek poetry either.

Besides, ancient exegetes often do not so much explain her as explain her away. In the scholia on Pindar, Nemean Ode 1.54, the phrase thaēta aígla is expained as meaning “either the visible brilliance (aíglē), the light; or that which is the cause of our sight, (i.e. the Sun). On this account, they also invented Theia as the mother of the Sun; for the god is the cause of sight (théa) for us.” According to this interpretation, Theia is not really a goddess, but only serves to mythologically inscribe certain properties of the god Sun.

The Stoic Cornutus says that “Theia is the cause of vision (ópsis)”; the scholia on the Theogony interpret her name as coming “from seeing (theōreîn) what is present, or from running (trékhein)” (scholia on Theog. 135), as “the motion of the sphere (of the Sun), from running (théein), or marvelling (thaumasmós)” (ibid. 371). These are the same ideas found in the Pindar scholia, but both Cornutus and the Theogony scholia conspicuously give up the conceit of genealogy, and interpret names like this as referring to natural phenomena or faculties of the cosmic god.

The Neoplatonist Julian, in his praise of the Sun, likewise does not treat her as a goddess in her own right, but both Hyperion and Theia as allusions to the First Principle; Theia is “the most divine (neuter, theiótaton) of all beings” (Julian, On the Emperor Sun 11).

For Proclus, a later Neoplatonist, Theia is one of the deities “contained within” or subordinate to the sublunar Rhea (On the Timaeus, vol. 3, p. 189), among one of the lower ranks of gods within the cosmos.


4 Novel traditions

Finally, we may note that according to some unidentifiable source, Theia, with Oceanus, was the mother of the Cercopes (Suetonius, On Insults 4), and that some Orphic poet expanded the list of Tians and Titanesses born to Heaven and Earth to fourteen: Themis, Tethys, Mnemosyne, “blessed Theia”, Dione, Phoibe, Rheia; Koios, Kroios (!), Phorcys, Kronos, Oceanus, Hyperion and Iapetus (quoted in Proclus, On the Timaeus, vol. 3, p. 184).