The Night Mother: Representations of the goddess Nyx (Part II)

Evelyn De Morgan, Sleep and Death, the Children of the Night, 1883

Evelyn De Morgan, Sleep and Death, the Children of the Night, 1883

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.

Edward Robert Hughes, Night with her train of stars, 1912

Edward Robert Hughes, Night with her train of stars, 1912

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.

 

Edward Robert Hughes, On the Wings of the Morning.

Edward Robert Hughes, 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.

Nineteenth-century Fiction Reading List

Ten books that I’ll be reading (or re-reading) this year for research purposes. I don’t mean to say that I won’t enjoy these novels, only that I’m not reading them purely for pleasure. It can also work the other way, and I’ll find myself getting research-related ideas while I’m engaging with something seemingly unrelated – one of many reasons why I’d encourage any research student to regularly read for fun, even if they don’t think they “have time” for it any more!

 

AndrewLang1. Andrew Lang – Fairy Tales from Around the World

Some of these I’ll be rereading, and others I’ll be reading for the first time. I’m particularly interested in Lang’s work since he was interested in both spiritualism and folklore, and wrote about both for journals.

 

 

Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales - The Brothers Grimm

2. The Brothers Grimm – Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales

Again, some rereading going on here – I’ve always enjoyed delving into the darker side of the Disney-fied fairy tales I grew up with, and considering their reception and influence in Victorian England seems like a lot of fun.

 

 

Hawthorne3. Nathaniel Hawthorne – Greek Myths: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys

I imagine this will be somewhat different in tone than The Scarlet Letter, which has been my only other experience with the author up until now, but you can’t go wrong with Greek myths (with the possible exception of Disney’s Hercules). Also, Walter Crane illustrations – I’m sold.

 

 

Carroll4. Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass

I’ve read these many, many times since I was a child, and they still don’t fail to entertain. It’s refreshing to read something so gloriously silly.

 

 

Stevenson5. Robert Louis Stevenson – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Though I’ve seen numerous adaptations, it’s been a very long time since I actually read the original. It’s hard to see myself not enjoying this, since strange potions and the darker side of people are totally my thing.

 

 

stevenson26. Robert Louis Stevenson – The Bottle Imp

Another Robert Louis Stevenson – this one just came to my attention fairly recently. From what little I’ve heard, it’s a twist on the older-than-dirt tales of genies in bottles and forming pacts with the devil, the catch being that one can only sell the bottle for less than they purchased it for.

 

SheridanLeFanu

7. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – Carmilla

Lesbian vampires, before lesbian vampires were hip and cool. (It’s a bit more complicated than that.) I’m willing to read most vampire fiction, and I’m intrigued by the idea of looking to the roots of a genre I enjoy so much. Also, this cover is absolutely stunning!

 

 

Wells8. H. G. Wells – Complete Short Story Omnibus

I’d read War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, but I wasn’t familiar with Wells’ short stories until I came across The Crystal Egg last year, which features something akin to a crystal ball from space – fun times. I’m hoping his other stories will at least be as pleasurable to read, if not as relevant to my research.

 

conandoyle9. Arthur Conan Doyle – The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that I have barely read any Sherlock Holmes stories, despite the fact that I enjoyed what I did read. Having read Conan Doyle’s spiritualist writings, it’ll be interesting to see how those beliefs come into his fictional works ( that is, if they do).

 

verne10. Jules Verne – Seven Novels

The omnibus is an amazing invention. In this collection we have Five Weeks in a Balloon, Around the World in Eighty Days, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Round the Moon, Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. I’ll be honest and say I have not entirely convinced myself that these are that relevant to my research, I just really loved Around the World in Eighty Days and refer you to my previous comment about finding ideas in unlikely places!

 

If anyone knows of any gems I can add to this list, that I might not already know of, please do let me know – and anything featuring magic or the supernatural would be especially appreciated!

“Goddess and Maiden and Queen”

Those who know me probably have some knowledge of my preoccupation with the story of Persephone (which began rather a long time before it became the topic of my MA dissertation), and so it will come as no surprise that it is with great pleasure that I am revisiting the myth in my current research, this time with the focus on the fatal fruit itself – the pomegranate.

One of Rossetti's Proserpine paintings, 1874.

One of Rossetti’s Proserpine paintings, 1874.

The nineteenth century produced one of the most iconic images of the goddess, in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine, in which the pomegranate is given a prominent position. The artist himself found the subject so compelling that in 1872 he begun the painting no fewer than four times, and although some of the paintings were completed as commissions, it has been suggested that another motive for the repetitions may have been Rossetti’s pursuit of perfection – this also comes across in some of his letters, in which he discusses some of the “defects” of previous versions.

When Rossetti mentioned the pomegranate in his letters he appeared to make reference to its role of entrapment – when Persephone eats the pomegranate seeds she is bound to her husband, Hades, and the underworld for up to half of each year (the exact length of time depends on which version of the myth you’re reading). Last year I wrote about the pomegranate’s additional status in the Graeco-Roman world as a symbol of fertility and of its use in Christian iconography as “an emblem of spiritual rebirth”, as noted by writer and critic, Walter Pater (1839-1894). This allows for a radically different understanding of Rossetti’s painting, in which the “fatal fruit” may be transformed into a more positive motif.

Another of Rossetti's Proserpine paintings, 1882.

Another of Rossetti’s Proserpine paintings, 1882.

It has recently come to my attention that there might be another way to interpret Persephone’s pomegranate – as a love potion (bear with me!) Most likely due to their association with fertility, pomegranates were sometimes considered to be effective aphrodisiacs or love charms and were, along with apples, associated with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Much about Persephone’s abduction actually resembles certain wedding rituals that occurred in ancient Greece, in which the bride was “kidnapped” by her husband-to-be, and given fruit (usually an apple) at their wedding banquet. The symbolism was twofold – the bride’s acceptance of the fruit from her husband demonstrated her acknowledgement of his authority, but the fruit might also be perceived as an aphrodisiac, or charm.

There was a particular practice that involved a man biting into an apple (though pomegranates were suggested as an alternative) and then proceeding to throw the fruit into the lap of the lady of his affections. By putting the fruit to her lips (as Persephone put hers to the pomegranate seeds), a lady signalled her consent, indicating a willingness to be seduced and subjecting herself to the charm. While it might not resemble some of the love potions and charms that come to mind in light of recent pop culture (Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter, anyone?), it is certainly a more unusual and complex practice than the drinking of wine – many ancient Greeks’ love potion of choice, and when most of their alternatives were deadly poisons, I can’t say I blame them.

Pre-Raphaelite Inspirations

After spending an unintentionally long time away from this blog for a number of reasons (most of which can be summed up as “life getting in the way”) I think it’s time I made a comeback! I’ll be working on my second post about artistic representations of Nyx in the near future, but for today I’d like to introduce you to an illustrator I recently came across completely by accident – Ed Org.

 

Morgan le Fay, 2011

Ed Org’s Morgan le Fay, 2011

The first of his works I came across was a pen and ink drawing of Morgan le Fay, a figure with whom I’ve become very familiar with during my current research – it seems the Victorians couldn’t get enough of the Arthurian legends. One of the best known and most widely circulated Victorian images of Morgan le Fay is Frederick Sandys’ exotic interpretation, in which the titular character is clad in a green kimono and animal skins as she casts her spell on the enchanted robe, designed to bring about her brother’s doom. Although there are many differences between the two images, it is interesting to note that in each representation, Arthur’s sorceress sister is not looking out towards the viewer, but instead is focussed on her own particular pursuits.

 

Frederick Sandys' Morgan le Fay, 1863-4

Frederick Sandys’ Morgan le Fay, 1863-4

Other Victorian favourites make appearances throughout Org’s impressive body of work – the Lady of Shalott, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Medea, Pandora and the like, amongst a number of witches, fairies, nymphs, mermaids and sirens. It was no surprise to find out that his favourite artist, and one of his biggest influences, is Edward Burne-Jones. Many of his works have what can only be described as a “Pre-Raphaelite” quality, and I’m not talking about those lovely long-necked ladies with the soulful expressions and wild, loose curls (although, to be sure, there were a fair few such figures). Rather, I mean to draw attention to the similarities between he style and subject matter common to Pre-Raphaelite art, and Org’s illustrations – the interest in nature and mythology, medieval inspirations, and the instances of hyper-realism.

Ed Org's Valkyrie, 1994

Ed Org’s Valkyrie, 1994

 

In another stunning ink drawing, Org once again shares his subject matter with Sandys – a flame haired valkyrie – but the composition itself is more reminiscent of another of Sandys’ paintings. Org’s Valkyrie and Sandys’ Cassandra might appear to convey different emotions to one another (this being one of the times in which Sandys’ characteristically exaggerated expressions is justified!), but there are definite similarities, from the wildness of their hair and the detail of the drapery, to the colour schemes chosen by the artists – the warmth of the red hair contrasting against the pale coolness of the blue. Yet, while there are undeniable resemblances between many of Org’s illustrations and the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists he is not merely emulating their style, but bringing something distinctly fresh and modern and his. It is always a pleasure to find current artists whose works are inspired by the Victorian and Edwardian artists, and especially so when it is done so well.

Frederick Sandys' Cassandra

Frederick Sandys’ Cassandra

 

For those interested, Ed Org’s gallery can be found here: http://www.edorg.co.uk/gallery/

Shadows in the Mist: Representations of the goddess Nyx (Part I)

The goddess of the night only rarely graces us with her presence in ancient literature, despite the significance of her role in the Orphic hymn “To Night”, in which she is named as the mother of all gods and men. Even before this she was considered a powerful figure, with major deities such as Zeus wary of her – it was for this reason that one of her sons, Hypnos (Sleep) was able to escape the god of thunder’s wrath following his trickery, according to Homer in the Iliad. However, the fact that her appearances were sparse and her descriptions vague has not deterred artists from forming their own representations of Nyx.

Note: the following contains massive spoilers for the ending of Persona 3, so if you’re considering playing the game, read on at your own peril!

Image

The main character of Persona 3 engages Nyx Avatar in battle.

Perhaps strangely, I was first introduced to Nyx in a video game called Persona 3. At this point I had a passing interest in Greek and Roman mythology, but it had not yet had the opportunity to develop into the mild obsession it is today. I would have been able to name most of the Olympians and other key figures like Hades, but Nyx was new to me and I was captivated by her. Her visual representation in Persona 3 was rather fascinating, as she was actually inhabiting (at least) two physical bodies. In the picture to the right, we see her avatar – a body whose previous identity was “Death” or Thanatos (one of Nyx’s children, in mythology). In other words, this is the body she assumes control of in order to begin orchestrating the series of events that will bring about the end of the world as we know it – pretty dramatic stuff.

Although there are no accounts in the classical literature of Nyx attempting such a feat, it is not difficult to see why she was given a role tied with death and destruction. In various classical sources, perhaps most notably Hesiod’s Theogony, she was said to be the mother of Ker (Violent Death), Momus (Blame), Apate (Deceit), Oizys (Misery), and Moros (Doom), amongst others. She was also recorded as dwelling in Tartarus, the deepest abyss located in the Underworld – often associated with torment and suffering, as well as serving as a prison for the Titans. Interestingly, Nyx Avatar’s in-game location is also named Tartarus, though it is depicted as a tower rather than an abyss, and when we are finally let in on the secret of Nyx’s true identity, it becomes clear why.

Nyx

Nyx’s “egg” form in Persona 3.

Nyx is the moon. It shouldn’t be surprising – Persona 3’s main events revolve around the lunar cycle and the characters (and player) are aware that a full moon is very definitely bad news. During the battle scenes with Nyx’s avatar the moon is not merely in view – its visibility is overwhelming. The sheer scale and the stark contrast to the dark, shadowy forms of the surrounding clouds demand our attention.

Typically, Nyx has been represented as a woman, sometimes winged, and usually wearing a dark, cloak-like garment, and was not usually associated so closely with the moon as the goddesses Artemis, Hecate, and especially Selene. However, I believe that the decision to represent Nyx in this way is one that makes sense, both in relation to ancient writings and within the context of the game – it is easy to perceive of her in this form as the powerful and imposing, yet bright and beautiful night goddess. Envisioning Nyx as an entity associated both with night and light does justice to her character and to her genealogy – the brilliant moon is enveloped by a darkness perhaps representative of her brother and consort, Erebus (Darkness), and allows us a glimpse of a night goddess we believe capable of giving birth to Aether (Light) and Hemera (Day).

Following the ultimate battle against the Avatar we are led to the moon itself to confront Nyx herself, and encounter a strange egg-like entity, as pictured above. Whether this is another form or an extension of the moon is debatable, but the imagery remains similar,

Nyx, as represented in the 10th-century Paris Psalter at the side of the Prophet Isaiah - a fairly typical representation of the goddess.

Nyx, as represented in the 10th-century Paris Psalter at the side of the Prophet Isaiah – a fairly typical representation of the goddess.

although we can now realise more fully her status as a “maternal being” – a title used to refer to her by various characters in the game. It may also reference the creation myth of the theology of the Orphic-Dionysic Mysteries, in which Nyx was said to have laid an egg that gave birth to the sky and earth.

While Persona 3’s Nyx deviates somewhat from many traditional images of the goddess, I think that the game’s representation manages to capture the essence of night in imagining Nyx as the moon, while considering her place in relation to Erebus and to her children. The vagueness surrounding the myth of Nyx allowed for this amalgamation of ancient mythology with the fantastical lore of the Persona 3 universe, providing us with new perspectives on her story without sacrificing the mystery that made her so irresistible to begin with.

De Morgan’s ‘The Love Potion’ (1903)

The Love Potion - Evelyn DeMorgan (1903)

The Love Potion – Evelyn DeMorgan (1903)

I noticed a while ago that various potions and magical concoctions are reasonably commonplace in nineteenth and early twentieth century art, but it’s when we start trying to identify them that things get really fun. The eclectic magical symbolism in Frederic Sandys’ passionate Medea (1868) requires a certain measure of unravelling, and even Evelyn De Morgan’s The Love Potion (1903) is not as simply understood as its title might suggest.

Love potions and spells can be tricky to define. In ancient Greek literature, we find that they are most usually used to produce one of two effects on their “victim” – uncontrollable, insanity-inducing passion (eros), or tender affection (philia). Typically, those who performed spells and rituals to induce eros were men, courtesans and whores with the desire to ensnare a young woman or man who was likely still unmarried, living in their natal home. Magic used to induce philia, on the other hand, was often performed by wives or social inferiors who craved love and affection, typically from husbands. (Faraone, 2001)

DetailWith this in mind, it is necessary to pin down the social context of a particular work of art, when attempting to decipher the properties of a particular spell or potion. Equally, we can sometimes spot various clues relating to potion ingredients or ritual that can potentially reveal more about the situation in the painting. In The Love Potion we can see an amorous couple in the background, dressed in medieval style attire – the lady wears a long, white dress and the man dons a knight’s armour. Their relation to the central character is unclear, as there is no perceivable interaction. In fact, I would go so far as to say she appears uninterested in their presence, which leads me to believe that she most likely has no direct relationship to the couple. When I first saw this painting I wondered whether she might be hoping to win the affections of the knight outside, but her cool concentration and air of indifference suggest otherwise – surely the sight of her beloved embracing another would provoke some kind of reaction?

It is this lack of interaction, or reaction, that leads me to suspect that the relationship of the couple to the lovely lady in yellow is symbolic. The modest, flowing white dress and the noble armour of the knight are reminiscent of scenes of chivalry and courtly love such as can be seen in earlier Pre-Raphaelite works (particularly those with high medievalist themes). This doesn’t tell us who the unsuspecting victim of the love potion will be, but it does hint towards the kind of potion she might be brewing. Additionally, signs that could indicate the synthesis of ingredients intended to produce a state of eros in the victim, such as the presence of tortured animals or bound images, are notably absent from the painting, and it is also worth mentioning that incantations over love potions are often practised by those trying to induce philia. (Faraone, 2001)

Deianira - Evelyn DeMorgan

Deianira – Evelyn DeMorgan (c.1878)

With both the demonstration of courtly love in the view from the window, and the symbolism suggestive of philia spells, I believe that far from mixing a hazardous cocktail of burning madness and wanton desire, this lady seeks to create a philtre to bring forth nothing more dangerous than the love and affection she craves. As we are still unsure of her beloved’s identity, we cannot be certain of the particular details that led her to dabble in magic, but we can assume that she is most likely in an existing relationship with this person, and wishes to repair that relationship. One of the most well-known mythic examples of women attempting to induce philia (as well as one of the most unsuccessful – she unwittingly made not a love potion, but a poison) involves Deianeira’s attempt to win back her husband Hercules’ affections and keep him from philandering. De Morgan was obviously familiar with this story, having illustrated part of it in her beautiful painting of Deianeria (c.1878) and given her great interest in and knowledge of ancient Greek literature, it is possible that the artist was to some degree aware of the concepts of eros and philia from her studies – especially given her interest in mysticism and the spiritual movement of her own time (another fantastic topic for discussion, watch this space!)