Aether is a primordial deity in Greek mythology representing the upper air or the pure, bright air that the gods breathed. Aether is one of the ancient elemental deities, alongside Chaos, Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (Underworld), and Eros (Love), and is often associated with light, the heavens, and the celestial realm.
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Who is Aether? What is Aether the God Of?
Aether in the Greek language means fresh, pure air. The ancient Greeks believed the swathe of bright blue sky above the earth was actually the mists of the primordial deity, Aether.
Aether was the primordial god of light who also represented the bright blue sky of the upper atmosphere that only gods breathe. The ancient Greeks believed different beings breathed different air.
The bright blue of Aether covered the moon, stars, sun, clouds, and mountain summits making each of these Aether’s domains. Aether had a female counterpart in Greek mythology referred to as Aethra or Aithra. Aethra was believed to be the mother of the moon, sun, and clear skies. Both entities were replaced by a Titan goddess named Theia, in later tales.
The Ancient Greeks believed that the god Uranus, who was the personification of the Sky, was a solid dome that enveloped the entirety of the Earth, or Gaia. Within the Sky, there were different representations of air.
The Primordial Air Gods of Ancient Greek Mythology
In ancient Greek tradition, Aether was one of three primordial air gods. The ancients believed that the shining light of the god Aether filled the atmosphere between Uranus and the transparent mists of another primordial god, Chaos.
According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who details the genealogy of Greek gods and goddesses, Chaos was the first primordial being to emerge at the beginning of the universe. Several other primordial gods emerged from the yawning abyss that was Chaos. They were Gaia (the Earth), Eros (desire), and Tartarus (the gloomy pit at the bottom of the universe).
Not only was Chaos the being that sparked creation, but he was one of the primordial air gods. Chaos was the god who represented the normal air that surrounded the Earth. Chaos, therefore, refers to the air breathed by mortals. Gaia created the solid dome of the Sky, Uranus, within which there were three divisions of air, each breathed by different beings.
In addition to Chaos and Aether, there was the god Erebus who was the personification of darkness. The inky black mists of Erebus filled the lowest and deepest parts of the Earth. Erebus’s mists filled the Underworld and the space below the Earth.
Aether in Greek Mythology
Unlike the humanoid personification that characterizes the later generations of gods and goddesses, the primordial deities were regarded differently. These first beings of the ancient Greek pantheon were purely elemental. This means these first deities were not given human form.
The very first gods were the personification of the element they represented. The ancient Greeks considered the pure upper air of the Earth’s atmosphere to actually be the primordial god, Aether. The ancients believed that Aether’s mists filled the empty space above the dome of the Sky.
In ancient Greek mythology, Aether was considered to be a protector of mortals. The shining light of Aether separated the Earth from the deepest darkest part of the universe, Tartarus. Tartarus was a gloomy prison at the bottom of the universe that eventually became the most feared level of Hades‘ domain, the Underworld.
The divine Aether was given the role of protector because he ensured the dark mists of Erebus that seeped from Tartarus, where all manner of frightening creatures were kept where they belonged. In some sources, Aether is likened to fire. The primordial deity was sometimes given the ability to breathe fire.
Aether’s Family Tree
According to the Greek poet Hesiod’s comprehensive genealogy of the gods titled Theogony, Aether was the son of the primordial deities Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night). Aether was the brother of the primordial goddess of the day, Hemera. Hesiod’s Theogony is widely regarded as the most authoritative genealogy of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses.
Similarly, other sources make Aether the first being to come into existence at the creation of the universe. In these cosmologies, Aether is the parent of the primordial deities that represent the Earth, (Gaia), Sea (Thalassa), and Sky (Uranus).
Sometimes Aether is the son of Erberus alone, or of Chaos. When Aether is the son of Chaos, the mists of the primordial deity become a part of the essence of Chaos, rather than a separate entity.
Aether and Orphism
Ancient Orphic texts differ significantly from Hesiod’s genealogy, in that the divine light of Aether is the son of the god of time, Chronus, and the goddess of inevitability, Ananke. Orphism refers to religious beliefs based on the mythical Ancient Greek poet, musician, and hero, Orpheus.
Orphism originated in the 5th or 6th Century BCE, the same period it is believed Hesiod wrote the Theogony. The ancients who followed the Orphic retelling of the creation myth and genealogy of the gods believed Orpheus had journeyed to the Underworld and returned.
In every Orphic source, Aether is one of the first forces to come into existence when the world began. Aether then becomes the force from which the cosmic egg is fashioned, and placed within.
Ananke and Chronus then assumed a serpentine form and encircled the egg. The beings wound themselves tighter and tighter around the egg until it cracked in two, creating two hemispheres. The atoms reorganized themselves after this, with the lighter and finer ones becoming Aether and the rarefied wind of Chaos. The heavy atoms sank to form Earth.
In Orphic theogonies, the cosmic egg, made from Aether, replaces the primordial abyss of Chaos as being the source of creation. Instead, a primordial hermaphrodite called Phanes or Protogonus is hatched from the shining egg. It was from this being that all other gods were then created.
There are several surviving Orphic texts, many of which mention the divine Aether. Three, in particular, mention the god of the pure upper air. These are the Derveni Papyrus, the Orphic Hymns, the Heironyman Theogony, and the Rhapsodic Theogony.
The oldest of the surviving texts is the Derveni Theogony or the Derveni Papyrus, which was written in the 4th Century. Aether is mentioned as an element, that is everywhere. Aether is responsible for the beginning of the world.
In the Heironyman Theogony, Aether is the son of Time and is described as being moist. The Rhapsodic Theogony similarly makes Time the father of Aether. In both Theogonies Aether was the brother of Erebus and Chaos.
In the Orphic Hymn to Aether, the deity is described as having endless power, and as possessing dominion over the sun, moon, and stars. Aether is said to be able to breathe fire and was the spark that fueled creation.
Aether and Hemera
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the god Aether enters into sacred marriage with his sister, the goddess of the day, Hemera. The pair work closely together in early myths to perform one of the most important tasks, the cycle of day to night.
In ancient Greek tradition, day and night were believed to be separate entities from the sun and the moon. The ancient Greeks even developed separate deities to represent celestial objects. The sun was personified by the god Helios, and the moon was personified by the goddess Selene.
The light was not necessarily thought of as coming from the sun. The light was believed to come from the shining blue light of the divine Aether.
In ancient Greek myths, the night was ushered in by Aether’s mother, the goddess Nyx who pulled her shadows across the Sky. Nyx’s shadows blocked Aether’s domain, hiding the bright blue light of Aether from view.
In the morning, Aether’s sister and wife, Hemera the goddess of the day would clear the dark mists of their mother to reveal Aether’s blue ether of the upper atmosphere once more.
Children of Aether
Depending on the source be it Hellenistic or Orphic, Hemera and Aether either have children or they do not. If the pair do reproduce, they are believed to be the parents of the rain cloud nymphs, called the Nephelae. In Greek mythology, the Nephalae were believed to deliver water to the streams by depositing the rainwater they had collected in their clouds.
In some traditions, Hemera and Aether are the parents of the primordial ocean goddess Thalassa. Thalassa is the primordial pair’s most notable offspring. Thalassa was the female counterpart to the primordial god of the sea, Pontus. Thalassa was the personification of the sea and was responsible for creating fish and other sea creatures.
This child of Aether was given human form, as she was described as possessing the form of a woman made of water, who would rise up from the sea.
Aether in Later Mythology
As with the majority of the first and even second generation of gods and goddesses of the ancient Greek pantheon, Aether eventually stops being mentioned in Greek myths. The god is replaced by the Titan goddess, Theia.
The primordial deities were honored by ancient humankind, but to our knowledge, there were no shrines or temples dedicated to them. Neither were there any rituals performed in their honor. This is in contrast to the many temples, shrines, and rituals ancient humankind built and performed to honor the Olympian gods.
Aether, the Fifth Element
Aether was not completely forgotten by the ancients. Instead of being a primordial personification that played a pivotal role in the transition from day to night, Aether became purely elemental.
In the middle ages, Aether came to refer to an element called the fifth element or quintessence. According to Plato and medieval scientists, Aether was the material that filled the universe around the earth.
The famous philosopher Plato refers to the Aether as translucent air but does not make it an element. Aristotle, a student of Plato, delves further into the idea of Aether as a classical element and makes it the first element.
Aether, according to Aristotle, was the material that held the stars and planets in place in the universe. Aether was not capable of motion like the other classical elements, instead, the fifth element moved circularly throughout the celestial regions of the universe. The element was not wet or dry, hot or cold.
Aether or quintessence became a key ingredient in medieval elixirs, where it was believed to be able to cure illness.