Tethys – Titan Goddess of Fresh Water

Goddess of fresh water Titanide Tethys, daughter of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth) and sister and consort of Oceanus, is not the most prominent one in her generation of Titans. She does not play an active role in Greek myths, except for her presence in myths about other gods. However, this charismatic goddess is prominent in the classical art, featuring either on her own or with Oceanus at her side.

Key facts

Family tree

ParentsGaia and Uranus
Partner(s)Oceanus
SiblingsTitans Cronus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Oceanus, Rhea, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Theia, Themis, as well as half-siblings: one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.
Offspring3000 river gods (Potamoi), 3000 nymphs of fresh water (Oceanids), and Nephelai (rain clouds).

Names & Others

Roman NameTethys
Other NamesTethys
Ancient GreekΤηθύς
The God ofFresh water and nursing mothers
SymbolsWinged brow

Origins

When Gaia, the Earth, married the god of the sky Uranus, they produced three sets of children: the Titans, the Cyclops and the Hecotoncheires.  Tethys was the first of their daughters, the Titanides. All the Titans, Cyclops and Hecotonchieires were imprisoned in the underworld by Uranus who loathed Cyclopes and Hecatonchieres and dreaded being overthrown by the Titans. The youngest of the Titan brothers, Cronus, castrated Uranus with a flint scythe that Gaia gave him, freeing his siblings. 

Goddess of fresh water Tethys became the consort of her brother Oceanus who embodied all seas and was the master of their waters. Together, the couple ruled over all the water bodies in the universe, as well as over everything that lived in both the salt water and fresh water bodies.

The liberation of Titans by Cronus started the Golden Age, the time of prosperity for gods and men alike. Cronus and his consort Rhea ruled the universe, while Oceanus, Tethys and other Titans were their court.

The Golden Age was cut short by Cronus, who feared that his children would overthrow him. He swallowed five of his children, but the sixth one, Zeus, was hidden by Gaia, reached adulthood, and started a war against Cronus and other Titans. The war was called Titanomachia. Not all the Titans took part in this war. All the female Titans including Tethys remained neutral, and so did some male Titans, for example, Tethys’ husband Oceanus. In fact. Zeus even placed his sisters Hestia, Demeter and Hera with Tethys and Oceanus while he was fighting the war.

When Tethys’s siblings Titans Hyperion and Theia gave birth to Helios, the Greek sun god, and to Selene, Tethys nursed and cared for them.

Name and epithets

  • The Titanide’s name Tethys is derived from the Greek word têthê that means “grandmother” or “nurse”.
  • Tethys’s epithets are “Mother of Rivers”, “Mother of Clouds”, “Mother of Nymphs”, “Nurse of the Gods”, “Nurse of Hera”.
  • Tethys was described as Thalassa (personalized form of the sea) during the late Ancient period.
  • Oceanus and Tethys may be related to the earlier Mesopotamian gods Apsu and Tiama. However, the roles of the male and female god were reversed: Apsu was the god of sweet waters and goddess Tiamat was associated with the ocean.

Family tree

Tethys was the daughter of Gaia, goddess of earth and mother of all life, and Gaia’s son Uranus, the god of Sky. She was the oldest one of the Titanides. She had six male siblings, the Titans Oceanus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, Iapetus and Cronus and six female siblings, Titanides Mnemosyne, Theia, Phoebe, Themis, and Rhea. Apart from that, she also had half-siblings which included one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.

Tethys married her brother Oceanus, god of all seas, and they produced three thousand sons, the river gods Potamoi and three thousand daughters, river nymphs Oceanids. The sons included Achelous, the god of the Achelous River, Alphleus, and Scamander. The most prominent Oceanids are Metis, Eurynome, Doris, Callirhoe, Clymene, Perseis, Idyia, and Styx. The Potamoi were the gods of all the streams and rivers of earth. Tethys supplied all her children with the water drawn from Oceanus.

According to some myths, Tethys was also the mother to Nephelai – cloud nymphs, or rain clouds.

Domains of power

Tethys is the goddess of fresh water that nourished the earth. Together with Oceanus, she was the master and creator of the element of water. The powerful couple was the source of all waters in the world, their protectors and rulers. They were responsible for the creation of life through water, but through it they also had the power of destruction and of renewal and purification. The world’s endless never-stopping flow was the work of Tethys and Oceanus.

She was also the Greek goddess of nursing mothers, which symbolized the same eternal flow as seen through its human embodiment. 

Symbolism

Winged brow, ketos (sea monster with the head of a dragon and body of a snake), rudder or oar.

Classical literature on Tethys

  • In Homer’s Iliad Hera uses the pretext of visiting her old nurse Tethys while in reality she is off to see Aphrodite and learn her skills.
  • Tethys appears alongside Oceanus in Ovid’s Metamorphose, Book XIII: 

“The gods of the sea received me, thinking me worth the honour of their company, and asked Oceanus and Tethys to purge what was mortal in me. I was purified by them, and, cleansed of sin by an incantation nine times repeated, they ordered me to bathe my body in a hundred rivers. Immediately streams from every side poured their waters over my head. So much I can tell of you of those marvellous things, so much of them I remember: then my mind knew no more. When later I came to, my whole body was altered from what I was before, and my mind was not the same”.

  • Ovid also refers to her in the story of Aesacus being turned into a diving bird (Book XI): 

“Aesacus mourning the death of his beloved Hesperie flung himself into the sea. In pity as he fell Tethys received him gently, and as he swam clothed him with feathers; thus the golden chance of death so much desired was never given”.

Place in ancient Greek religion

She was not actively worshiped and there was no cult of her.

Stories where Tethys plays a part

Titanomachia
Francesco Allegrini da Gubbio, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tethys and Titanomachia

When Zeus, Poseidon and Hades fought with their father Cronus, they entrusted the care of their sisters Hera, Demeter and Hestia to Oceanus and Tethys. Apparently, Hera used her time with the couple to try and reconcile them, as Oceanus and Tethys had been angry with one another. 

Hera, Calisto and Tethys

After Zeus’s lover nymph Calisto died, Zeus transformed her into a bear and placed her among the stars. Zeus’s wife Hera was jealous of Calisto even after her death. She asked Tethys to never let the constellation Ursa Major, of which Calisto/Bear became a part, to bathe in the sea. Tethys granted her wish. Ursa Major never sets below the horizon, and Bear can never bathe together with all the other stars.

Aesacus, Hesperia and Tethys

Aesacus, son of King Priam of Troy, was famous for his ability to foretell the future. He fell in love with the nymph Hesperia, daughter of Potamoi Cerben. When Hesperia died from a snake bite, Aesacus did not want to continue living without her. He flung himself into the sea from the tallest cliff he was able to find. But the fall did not kill him. Tethys transformed Aesacus into a diving bird, and he plunged magnificently and smoothly into the water.

Transformed into a bird, Aesacus repeated the attempt once again, and once again he came out unharmed. He keeps trying to this day, plunging from the cliff into the sea.

Wedding between Peleus and Thetis

Tethys was a guest at the famous wedding between Peleus and nymph Thetis. It was from this feast that discord first started between Hera, Aphrodite and Athena, which later culminated in the Trojan War.

Depictions in Art and Pop Culture

In Classical Art

Depictions of Tethys are very rare in the Greek art; however, she was often depicted in Roman mosaics decorating baths, pools and triclinia, particularly from 2nd to 4th century AD. Tethys is normally depicted as a woman with a voluptuous body, lush hair, and often has peculiar wings attached to her brow that symbolize rain clouds of which she is the mother. She often has fish or sea creatures coming out of her head. A ketos, sea monster with the head of a dragon and body of a snake, frequently sits on her shoulder.

In Pop Culture

  • The name Tethys was given to one of the moons of Saturn.
  • Her name was given to the ancient ocean that separated the continents that formed Pangea in the Mesozoic era: Tethys Sea, or Tethys Ocean.
  • Tethys appears in the animated film Hercules and Xena: The Battle for Mount Olympus. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What was Tethys the goddess of?

Tethys was the Titan goddess of fresh water and sister and consort of god of the sea Oceanus.

Is Tethys the same as Thetis?

Tethys is the Titan goddess of fresh water and sister and consort of the god of the sea Oceanus. Thetis’s main role is that of a sea nymph.

Who are Tethys’s children?

The children of Tethys are 3000 river gods and 3000 nymphs.

What are Tethys symbol?

Symbols of Tethys are a winged brow, a ketos, rudder or oar.

Featured Image Credit: Nevit Dilmen, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons