After reading and being inspired by this post on Kirsty Stonell Walker’s blog, The Kissed Mouth, I realised it was time for me to keep my promise of returning to the topic of one of the most mysterious Greek goddesses, Nyx (Night). Towards the end of my last post concerning Nyx, I briefly talked about her portrayal as a maternal being in Persona 3, and I’d like to continue speculating and investigating representations of this particular aspect of her character in other media. Like Kirsty, I’m primarily a “historian of the Victorian,” and so this seems a good place for me to begin.
While images of Nyx as a solitary figure are not scarce, the frequency with which she was painted alongside her son, Hypnos (Sleep) is worthy of our attention. Evelyn De Morgan also invited Thanatos (Death), the twin brother of Hypnos, to the family gathering in Sleep and Death, the Children of the Night (1883). In Edward Robert Hughes’ Night with her Train of Stars (1912), she is surrounded by cherubs and carries a baby in her arms as poppies scatter beneath them. The poppy’s well-known association with both sleep and death suggests that this baby is one of her sons – both were often depicted with crowns of poppies. The flower was also associated with the goddess Demeter, who was said to have created the poppy in order that she may sleep, following her separation from her daughter, Persephone. Unlike Demeter, Nyx had numerous children.
In addition to Hypnos and Thanatos, she gave life to Moros (Doom), Nemesis (Retribution), Eris (Strife), and Geras (Old Age), to name only a few. Interestingly, she also gave birth to Philotes, a minor Greek goddess of love and friendship, and she and Erebus (Darkness), at least in Hesiod’s account, were the parents of Aether (Light) and Hemera (Day). In his Theogony, Hesiod documents Hypnos, Thanatos and Hemera as living in Tartarus, along with Nyx. Due to their opposing natures, Hemera and Nyx can never occupy Tartarus at the same time as one another – as one returns, the other leaves, as demonstrated in Hughes’ companion piece, On the Wings of the Morning.
One possible reason for Hypnos being the child most often portrayed beside his mother may relate to the story I mentioned in my other post, in which he managed to get on Zeus’ bad side but was saved from certain smiting due to Nyx’s (unspoken) threat of maternal fury. This tells us two important things about Nyx – that she was sufficiently powerful and frightening to worry even Zeus, and that she cared about her son. Since we’re dealing with deities in Greek mythology, we should not assume the kind of familial relationships that we, as human beings, may typically expect to experience. Cronus, for example, ate his own children (don’t worry, they got better) in an attempt to prevent the prophecy that he would be overthrown by his son from coming true.
Although there were a few interesting births among the Olympians, including Athena emerging fully armed from Zeus’ forehead, Nyx appears to the only goddess to give birth to multiple children without any male input. Although Erebus was the father to some of her children, she conceived many more without any assistance. Whether or not the other Greek deities had this ability is not certain, but it does not appear so. The creation story in the Orphic-Dionysic Mysteries tells of the sky and earth being born from an egg laid by Nyx, further emphasising her unique fertility. It may also be because we know little else about her that motherhood appears to be such a special part of Nyx’s character, but perhaps the fact that one of the main narratives in which she is mentioned concerns her protection of her son is very telling, too.