Iris (mythology)

In Greek mythology, Iris (/ˈrɪs/; Greek: Ἶρις, translit. Íris, lit. "rainbow",[1] Ancient Greek[îːris]) is a daughter of the gods Thaumas and Electra, the personification and goddess of the rainbow and messenger of the gods.[2]

Goddess of the Rainbow, Messenger of the Gods
Iris Carrying the Water of the River Styx to Olympus for the Gods to Swear By, Guy Head, c. 1793
AbodeMount Olympus (possibly)
SymbolRainbow, caduceus, pitcher
Personal information
ParentsThaumas and Electra
SiblingsArke, Harpies
Roman equivalentArcus



According to Hesiod's Theogony, Iris is the daughter of Thaumas and the Oceanid Electra and the sister of the Harpies: Arke and Ocypete.[3] During the Titanomachy, Iris was the messenger of the Olympian gods while her sister Arke betrayed the Olympians and became the messenger of the Titans. She is the goddess of the rainbow. She also serves nectar to the goddesses and gods to drink. Zephyrus, who is the god of the west wind is her consort. Together they had a son named Pothos,[4] or alternatively they were the parents of Eros,[5] the god of love, according to sixth century BC Greek lyric poet Alcaeus, though Eros is usually said to be the son of Ares and Aphrodite. According to the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, Iris' brother is Hydaspes.[6]

She is also known as one of the goddesses of the sea and the sky. Iris links the gods to humanity. She travels with the speed of wind from one end of the world to the other[7] and into the depths of the sea and the underworld.

Winged female figure holding a caduceus: Iris (messenger of the gods) or Nike (Victory)

Messenger of the godsEdit

In some records Iris is a sister to fellow messenger goddess Arke (arch), who flew out of the company of Olympian gods to join the Titans as their messenger goddess during the Titanomachy, making the two sisters enemy messenger goddesses. Iris was said to have golden wings, whereas Arke had iridescent ones. She is also said to travel on the rainbow while carrying messages from the gods to mortals. During the Titan War, Zeus tore Arke's iridescent wings from her and gave them as a gift to the Nereid Thetis at her wedding, who in turn gave them to her son, Achilles, who wore them on his feet.[8] Achilles was sometimes known as podarkes (feet like [the wings of] Arke). Podarces was also the original name of Priam, king of Troy.

Following her daughter Persephone's abduction by Hades, the goddess of agriculture Demeter withdrew to her temple in Eleusis and made the earth barren, causing a great famine which killed off mortals, and as a result sacrifices to the gods ceased. Zeus then sent Iris to Demeter, calling her to join the other gods and lift her curse; but as her daughter was not returned, Demeter was not persuaded.[9]

According to the lost epic Cypria by Stasinus, it was Iris who informed Menelaus, who had sailed off to Crete, of what had happened back in Sparta while he was gone, namely his wife Helen's elopement with the Trojan Prince Paris as well as the death of Helen's brother Castor.[10]

Iris is frequently mentioned as a divine messenger in The Iliad, which is attributed to Homer. She does not, however, appear in The Odyssey, where her role is instead filled by Hermes. Like Hermes, Iris carries a caduceus or winged staff. By command of Zeus, the king of the gods, she carries a ewer of water from the River Styx, with which she puts to sleep all who perjure themselves. In Book XXIII, she delivers Achilles's prayer to Boreas and Zephyrus to light the funeral pyre of Patroclus.[11]

Iris also appears several times in Virgil's Aeneid, usually as an agent of Juno. In Book 4, Juno dispatches her to pluck a lock of hair from the head of Queen Dido, that she may die and enter Hades.[12] In book 5, Iris, having taken on the form of a Trojan woman, stirs up the other Trojan mothers to set fire to four of Aeneas' ships in order to prevent them from leaving Sicily.[13]

According to the Roman poet Ovid, after Romulus was deified as the god Quirinus, his wife Hersilia pleaded with the gods to let her become immortal as well so that she could be with her husband once again. Juno heard her plea and sent Iris down to her. With a single finger, Iris touched Hersilia and transformed her into an immortal goddess. Hersilia flew to Olympus, where she became one of the Horae and was permitted to live with her husband forevermore.[14][15]

Iris stands behind the seated Juno (right) in a Pompeii fresco

Other mythsEdit

According to the "Homeric Hymn to Apollo", when Leto was in labor prior to giving birth to her twin children Apollo and Artemis, all the goddesses were in attendance except for two, Hera and Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. On the ninth day of her labor, Leto told Iris to bribe Ilithyia and ask for her help in giving birth to her children, without allowing Hera to find out.[16] According to Callimachus, Iris along with Ares ordered, on Hera's orders, all cities and other places to shun the pregnant Leto and deny her shelter where she could bring forth her twins.[17]

According to Apollonius Rhodius, Iris turned back the Argonauts Zetes and Calais, who had pursued the Harpies to the Strophades ("Islands of Turning"). The brothers had driven off the monsters from their torment of the prophet Phineus, but did not kill them upon the request of Iris, who promised that Phineus would not be bothered by the Harpies again.

In a lesser known narrative, Iris once came close to being raped by the satyrs after she attempted to disrupt their worship of Dionysus, perhaps at the behest of Hera. About fifteen black-and-red-figure vase paintings dating from the fifth century BC depict said satyrs either menancingly advancing toward or getting hold of her when she tries to interfere with the sacrifice.[18]

In Euripides' play Herakles, Iris appears alongside Lyssa, cursing Heracles with the fit of madness in which he kills his three sons and his wife Megara.[19]



Weber-Laborde head Louvre, possibly the head of Iris.
Iris, sculpture from the west pediment of the Parthenon, now at the British Museum.[20]

There are no known temples or sanctuaries to Iris. While she is frequently depicted on vases and in bas-reliefs, few statues are known to have been made of Iris during antiquity. She was however depicted in sculpture on the west pediment of Parthenon in Athens.

Iris does appear to have been the object of at least some minor worship, but the only trace preserved of her cult is the note that the Delians offered cakes, made of wheat, honey and dried figs, as offerings to Iris.[21]


Iris had numerous poetic titles and epithets, including chrysopteros (χρυσόπτερος "golden winged"), podas ōkea (πόδας ὠκέα "swift footed") or podēnemos ōkea (ποδήνεμος ὠκέα "wind-swift footed"), roscida ("dewy", Latin), and Thaumantias (Θαυμαντιάς "Daughter of Thaumas, Wondrous One"), aellopus (ἀελλόπους "storm-footed, storm-swift).[22] She also watered the clouds with her pitcher, obtaining the water from the sea.


Iris is represented either as a rainbow or as a beautiful young maiden with wings on her shoulders. As a goddess, Iris is associated with communication, messages, the rainbow, and new endeavors. This personification of a rainbow was once described as being a link to the heavens and earth.[23]

In some texts she is depicted wearing a coat of many colors. With this coat she actually creates the rainbows she rides to get from place to place. Iris' wings were said to be so beautiful that she could even light up a dark cavern, a trait observable from the story of her visit to Somnus in order to relay a message to Alcyone.[24]

While Iris was principally associated with communication and messages, she was also believed to aid in the fulfillment of humans' prayers, either by fulfilling them herself or by bringing them to the attention of other deities.[25]



  1. ^ Etymology of ἶρις in Bailly, Anatole (1935) Le Grand Bailly: Dictionnaire grec-français, Paris: Hachette.
  2. ^ Smith, s.v. Iris.
  3. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 265; see also Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1.2.6
  4. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47.340
  5. ^ Alcaeus frag 149
  6. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 26.355-365
  7. ^ The Iliad, Book II, "And now Iris, fleet as the wind, was sent by Jove to tell the bad news among the Trojans."
  8. ^ Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 6; epitomized in Photius' Bibliotheca 190
  9. ^ Homeric Hymns 2.314-325
  10. ^ Proclus' summary of Stasinus' Cypria.
  11. ^ Mackie, Christopher John (2011). "The Homer Encyclopedia". Credo Reference.
  12. ^ Virgil, Aeneid 4.696
  13. ^ Virgil, Aeneid 5.606
  14. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.829-851
  15. ^ McLeish, Kenneth. "Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth". Credo Reference.
  16. ^ Grant, Michael (2002). "Who's Who in Classical Mythology, Routledge". Credo Reference.
  17. ^ Callimachus, Hymn to Delos 67-69
  18. ^ Donald Sells, Parody, Politics and the Populace in Greek Old Comedy pg. 112
  19. ^ Euripides, Heracles 822
  20. ^ British museum 1816,0610.96.
  21. ^ Athen. xiv. p. 645; comp. Müller, Aegin. p. 170.
  22. ^ Homer uses the alternative form aellopos (ἀελλόπος): Iliad viii. 409.
  23. ^ Seton-Williams, M.V. (2000). Greek Legends and Stories. Rubicon Press. pp. 75–76.
  24. ^ Bulfinch, Thomas (1913). Bulfinch's Mythology: the Age of Fable, the Age of Chivalry, Legends of Charlemagne: Complete in One Volume. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.
  25. ^ Seton-Williams, M.V. (2000). Greek Legends and Stories. Rubicon Press. p. 9.




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