The Ancient Greek pantheon of gods is large and can be hard to keep track of. Greek mythology has seeped into pop culture in such a way that most people these days have at least a passing knowledge of the big names. Most people have heard of Zeus, Hades, and Hercules for example, courtesy of Disney. This is great, anything which encourages an interest in history should be nurtured. However, the minor players in Greek mythology are often some of the most interesting but also the most overlooked. Take Nyx, the Goddess of the Night for example. A goddess so powerful Zeus himself feared her.
Who and What was Nyx?
Greek mythology consists of several different generations of deities. For the most part, the most well-known and most commonly worshiped historically were the Olympians (Zeus, Hera, Hades, etc.) Before these came the Titans and before these came Protogenoi.
The Proogenoi were the primordial gods . According to Greek mythology when the universe first came into being the primordial gods were there, fully formed. These primordial gods each represented a different aspect of existence, together they formed the building blocks of the early universe.
In mythology Nyx represented night. As a primordial god, she played an essential role in shaping the universe and birthing several other important primordial gods. As a primordial, she outpowered even the mighty Zeus, known as father of the gods.
In the painting La Nuit (The Night) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, we are essentially looking at Nyx the night goddess of ancient Greece, a minor figure but one that endured. (William-Adolphe Bouguereau / Public domain )
Nyx’s Family Tree
The family tree of the Greek gods is beyond complicated. It is more than a little incestuous, it turns out the Greek gods worked within a fairly tight gene pool. Nyx is almost at the top of this family tree with only one generation above her.
At the beginning of time, there was only Chaos. Chaos was originally depicted as the goddess of the air. Later classical authors redefined her as the chaotic mixture of elements that came before creation. This is where the modern-day meaning of the word comes from.
Shortly after Chaos emerged she was followed by Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros who all went on to create their own protogenoi. Chaos for her part birthed three children, Erebos (the personification of darkness and the mists of the underworld), Nyx (the night), and Hemera (the day).
These protogenoi then procreated, creating various other protogenoi as well as spirits like the Daimones (the source of emotions). These offspring acted as additional building blocks helping to flesh out the early universe. For her part, Nyx married her brother, Erebos, and gave birth to many more children than can be listed here.
Erebos and Nyx gave birth to two prominent protogenoi. The two produced Hemera (Day) and Aether (Light). Hemera and Aether were the opposites to their parents, representing light whereas their parents represented the dark.
The rest of Nyx’s children are usually associated with the darker aspects of creation. She created the Morai (the Fates), the Keres (goddesses of cruel and violent death), Oizys (misery), Eris (strife), Thanatos (death), and Hypnos (sleep). The only other exception to this rule was Philotes, who was the goddess of friendship and affection.
Nyx is dark as blackest black in many depictions, including this one by artist Anna Zinonos, but she was also loving and protective of her children. (Anna Zinonos / CC BY 4.0 )
Nyx in Mythology
Despite playing an important role at the beginning of creation Nyx isn’t a very prominent figure in Greek mythology. She does not appear in many myths and is generally mentioned in passing. This is quite common for the majority of the protogenoi and their successors, the Titans.
In poems Nyx is usually depicted as a shadowy figure, a veil of dark mists that floats across the sky, obscuring the light. She is normally shown as residing in Tartarus (the deepest depths of the underworld, analogous to the Christian idea of Hell). Nyx is also depicted as a motherly figure and often portrayed as living with her children.
Every night Nyx and Erebus would leave Tartarus to block out the light of their son, Aether. Then every morning the two parents would return home to rest and their daughter Hemara would wipe away the darkness, restoring light to the world. Essentially running the day/night cycle was Nyx’s family business.
Later mythology would go on to change this this to a degree. Aether and Hemara were later replaced with the Olympian gods Eos (dawn), Helios (sun), and Apollo (god of light). In these later myths, it was usually Helios (or sometimes Apollo) who dragged the sun across the sky by chariot, bringing light to the world. Notably whilst her children were replaced, Nyx never was and continued to appear in mythology.
Ariadne asleep at Hypnos’s side, detail of an ancient fresco in Pompeii. Hypnos was Nyx’s son, and he was asked by Hera, twice, to put Zeus to sleep. (Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Nyx versus Zeus
Zeus is commonly seen as being the most powerful of the Greek gods. It is he who beat the Titans, freed his siblings, and rules on Olympus as the King of the Gods. Throughout all of mythology, Zeus is never really shown as being afraid or even wary of the other gods. Indeed, he never seems to care who he upsets, spending most of his reign doing whatever he feels like.
But there is one exception. Nyx is commonly seen as the only goddess Zeus feared. As one of the original protogenoi, Nyx was more powerful than him and this made him wary of her. The version of this tale comes from Homer’s Iliad.
There is a scene in which Hera (wife of Zeus) asks Hypnos (son of Nyx) to put Zeus to sleep. Hypnos is unwilling, reminding Hera what happened the last time he did her a favor. Hera had asked Hypnos once before to put Zeus to sleep. This had been so that Hera could inflict misfortune upon Heracles (Greek hero and bastard son of Zeus).
Hypnos lacked the power to fully incapacitate the mighty Zeus though. When Zeus figured out what was happening, he was furious and sought to hunt Hypnos down so that he might smite him into the sea. Hypnos, no fool, fled to Nyx’s home where she gave him refuge. Zeus did not dare trespass, fearing Nyx’s wrath.
This was not a one-time event. Zeus never forgave Hypnos. Over the years they would go on to have several more run-ins. Each time Hypnos would promptly run to his mother’s side where he knew Zeus would be too afraid to do anything.
Nyx’s lack of prominence is reflected in the way she was worshiped. As far as we can tell, Nyx had no cult of her own, nor any temples. Instead, she was worshiped in the background of other cults. For example, she had a statue in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
Yet her lack of prominence in mythology doesn’t make her any less interesting. Her dark depiction and the fact she essentially lived in hell might make one think she played a villainous role. The opposite is true. She not only played a vital role in helping to create the universe but her love for her children was so powerful that even Zeus, king among gods, dared not confront her.
Top image: Nyx, the Greek goddess of the night, who was feared even by Zeus. Source: Brenda Clarke / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
By Robbie Mitchell