The Horae: Greek Goddesses of the Seasons

The Greek gods and goddesses are numerous, ranging from the familiar Zeus to more obscure deities such as Ersa (goddess of the morning dew) down to more nebulous personifications like Hybris and Kakia. And while whole volumes have been written about the whole throng of them, there’s a less-talked about group of goddesses that have bled down into our modern cultural background that deserves a bit of mention – the Horae, or Hours, goddesses of the seasons and the progression of time.

The Horae have never been a consistent group of goddesses. Rather, like a particularly volatile band, their lineup has changed significantly depending on specifically where and when you look across the landscape of Greek mythology. Even their general associations take on different flavors depending on the time, place, and source.

The first surviving mention of them is in the Iliad, in which Homer gives few specifics except to describe them as the keepers of Heaven’s gates who also tend to Juno’s horses and chariot – roles that seem to vanish later. Beyond Homer’s initial reference are a host of sometimes-conflicting descriptions giving us a varying number and nature of Hours, many of whom still have echoes in art and culture.

The Horae of Justice

Homer’s contemporary, the Greek poet Hesiod, gave a more detailed account of the Horae in his Theogony, in which Zeus married Themis, the Greek goddess of justice and daughter of Uranus and Gaia. From this marriage (Zeus’ second) were born the three goddesses  Eunomia, Dike, and Eirene as well as the Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.

This is one of the two recognized (and very different) Triads of the Horae. And with Themis being the personification of order and moral justice in Greek mythology, it’s no surprise that these three goddesses were seen in a similar light in ancient Greece.

This is not to say that these three sisters had no associations with the passing seasons or nature. These daughters of Zeus were still seen as being associated with the sky and the heavenly constellations, which makes sense given their connection to the orderly passage of time.

And these Horae all generally had an association with Spring, with at least a few vague connections between them and plant growth. But these three Horae goddesses were much more firmly associated with notions like peace, justice, and good order like their mother Themis.

Dice, the Hora of Moral Justice 

Dike was the goddess of human justice, of legal rights and fair rulings, who abhorred liars and corruption. Hesiod would expound on this depiction in Works and Days, and it recurs heavily in the works of Sophocles and Euripides in the 5th century BC.

Depicted as a maiden of eternal youth, Dike was one of the numerous figures associated with the constellation Virgo. But a more direct legacy came when the Romans copied the ancient Greeks’ theological homework, revising Dike as the goddess Justicia – whose image as “Lady Justice” adorns courthouses across the Western world to this day.

Eunomia, the Hora of Law

Eunomia, on the other hand, was the personification of law and order. Where her sister was concerned with fair rulings according to the law, Eunomia’s province was the construction of the law itself, of governance and the social stability a legal framework provides.

She was invoked in numerous sources as a goddess of order in both civil and personal contexts. Notably, she was frequently depicted on Athenian vases as a companion of Aphrodite, as a representation of the importance of lawful obedience in marriage.

Eirene, the Hora of Peace

The last of this triad was Eirene, or Peace (called Pax in her Roman incarnation). She is commonly depicted as a young woman holding a cornucopia, torch, or scepter.

She was worshipped prominently in Athens, particularly after the Athenians defeated Sparta in the Peloponnesian War during the 4th century BC. The city boasted a bronze statue of the goddess holding the infant Plutos (the god of plenty), symbolic of the notion that Prosperity survives and grows under the protection of Peace.  

The Horae of the Seasons

But there is another, more commonly known triad of Horae also mentioned in both Homeric Hymns and the works of Hesiod. And while it’s already been said the other triad had a few tenuous associations with Spring and plants – Eunomia was associated with green pastures, while Eirene often held a cornucopia and was described by Hesiod with the epithet “green shoot” – this triad leans much more heavily into the idea of the Horae as seasonal goddesses. 

According to the Fabulae of the 1st Century scholar Hyginus, this trio of goddesses – Thallo, Karpo, and Auxo – were also considered in Greek mythology as the daughters of Zeus and Themis. And in fact there have been some attempts to create associations between the two sets of Horae – equating Thallo and Eirene, for instance – though Hyginus lists each set of three goddesses as separate entities and the notion of the first and second group as somehow overlapping doesn’t have a lot of foundation.

Unlike their mother, this second group of Horae goddesses had little association with concepts like peace or human justice. Rather, the Greeks saw them as goddesses of the natural world, concerned with the progression of the seasons and the natural order of vegetation and agriculture.

Ancient Greeks initially recognized only three seasons – Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Thus, initially only three Horae represented the seasons of the year, as well as the stage of plant growth that marked off and measured each season.

Thallo, Goddess of Spring

Thallo was the Horae goddess of buds and green shoots, associated with Spring and worshipped as the goddess responsible for granting prosperity in planting and protecting new growth. Her Roman equivalent was the goddess Flora.

READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses

She was worshipped heavily in Athens and was specifically invoked in the citizen’s oath of that city. As a Spring goddess, she was also naturally associated with flowers, so it should be no surprise that blooms feature prominently in depictions of her.

Auxo, Goddess of Summer

Her sister Auxo was the Horae goddess of Summer. As a goddess associated with plant growth and fertility, she would frequently be depicted in art as bearing a sheaf of grain.

Like Thallo, she was worshipped mainly in Athens, although Greeks in the Argolis region worshipped her as well. And while she was numbered among the Horae, she is also recorded, including in Athens, as one of the Charites, or Graces, alongside Hegemone and Damia among others. It’s worth noting that in this aspect she was called Auxesia rather than Auxo, and her association was with Spring growth rather than Summer, which hints at the sometimes murky web of Horae associations and depictions.

Carpo, Goddess of Autumn

The last of this trio of Horae was Carpo, the goddess of Autumn. Associated with the harvest, she may have been a revised version of the Greek harvest-goddess Demeter. Indeed, one of Demeter’s titles was Carpo’phori, or fruit-bearer. 

Like her sisters, she was worshipped in Athens. She was typically depicted as bearing grapes or other fruits of the harvest.

An alternate version of this triad was composed of Carpo and Auxo (designated simply as the personification of growth) alongside a different Greek goddess, Hegemone, who symbolised Autumn along with Carpo was alternately described as the daughter of few different Greek gods Zeus, Helios, or Apollo. Hegemone (whose name means “Queen” or “Leader”)  was considered chief among the Charites rather than a Horae, as noted by Pausanias in his Descriptions of Greece (Book 9, Chapter 35) , which describes Carpo (but not Auxo) as a Charite as well.

Associations of the Triad Goddesses

Both triads of Horae make various cameo appearances throughout Greek mythology. The “justice” triad, highlighting their association with Spring, were described in Orphic Hymn 47 as escorting Persephone on her journey from the underworld each year.

The Horae were sometimes conflated with the Charites, especially in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, in which they greet the goddess and escort her to Mount Olympus.  And of course, they had been previously described as the gatekeepers of Olympus, and in The Dionysiaca by Nonnus the Horae were described as servants of Zeus who travelled about the sky.

READ MORE: The Twelve Olympian Gods

Hesiod, in his version of the myth of Pandora, describes the Horae as gifting her with a garland of flowers. And perhaps as a natural outgrowth of their associations with growth and fertility, they were frequently ascribed the role of caretakers and protectors for newborn Greek gods and goddesses, as noted in the Imagines of Philostratus among other sources.

The Horae of the Four Seasons

While the trio of Thallo, Auxo, and Carpo were originally the personifications of the three seasons recognized in ancient Greece, Book 10 of the Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus lists a  different permutation of Horae that expanded out to the four seasons we know today, adding a goddess associated with Winter to the mix.

The earlier Horae that comprised the triads had been listed as the daughters of  Zeus and Themis, but in this incarnation the goddesses of the seasons were given different parentage, being described instead as the daughters of the sun god Helios and the moon goddess Selene. 

And they didn’t retain the names of the earlier sets of Horae, either. Rather, each of these Horae bore the Greek name of the appropriate season, and these were the personifications of the seasons that endured through Greek and later Roman society.

While they were still largely depicted as young women, depictions of them also exist showing them each in the form of cherubic winged youth. Examples of both sorts of depictions can be seen in the Jamahiriya Museum (to see each as a youth) and the Bardo National Museum (for the goddesses).

The Four Seasons

The first of these new goddesses of the seasons was Eiar, or Spring. She is usually depicted in artwork as wearing a crown of flowers and holding a young lamb, and images of her generally included a budding shrub.

The second was Theros, the goddess of Summer. She was usually shown carrying a sickle and crowned with grain.

The next of these Horae was Phthinoporon, the personification of Autumn. Like Carpo before her, she was often depicted carrying grapes or with a basket filled with the fruits of the harvest.

Added to these familiar seasons was Winter, now represented by the goddess Kheimon. Unlike her sisters, she was usually depicted fully clothed, and was often shown by a bare tree or holding withered fruits.

The Hours of Time

But of course the Horae weren’t just goddesses of the seasons.  They were also seen as presiding over the orderly progression of time. The very word for these goddesses – Horae, or Hours, has filtered down as one of our most common words for marking time, and it’s this part of their legacy that remains the most familiar and relevant to us today.

This element had existed in some from the beginning. In even the earliest citations, the Horae were said to oversee the progression of the seasons and the movement of the constellations across the night sky. But the later association of specific Horae with a recurring part of each day fully cements them to our modern, more rigid sense of timekeeping.

In his Fabulae, Hyginus lists nine Hours, retaining many of the names (or variants of them) from the familiar triads – Auco, Eunomia, Pherusa, Carpo, Dike, Euporia, Eirene, Orthosie, and Tallo. Yet he notes that other sources list ten Hours instead (though he actually gives a list of eleven names) – Auge, Anatole, Musica, Gymnastica, Nymphe, Mesembria, Sponde, Elete, Acte, Hesperis, and Dysis.

It’s worth noting that each of the names on this list corresponds with either a natural part of the day or a regular activity the Greeks would have kept as part of their normal routine. This is a bit like the new pack of season-goddesses, who – unlike their predecessors – didn’t have names of their own, per se, but simply adopted that of the season to which they were affiliated, like Eiar. This list of names for the daily Hours is completely in line with the notion of the Hours as demarking time throughout the day. 

This change was even reflected in their divine genealogy. Rather than being the daughters of Zeus or the god Helios, who each relate to the passing of time in only a vague way, the Dionysiaca describes these Horae as the daughters of Chronos, or Time itself.

The Breakout of the Day

The list begins with Auge, or First Light. This goddess is the extra name on the list by Hyginus, and seems not to have been part of the original ten. Next came Anatole as the personification of sunrise.

Following these two goddesses were a set of three related to the times for regular activities, starting with Musica for the time of music and study. After her were Gymnastica, who as her name suggests was associated with exercise as well as education, and Nymphe who was the Hour of bathing. 

Then came Mesambria, or noon, followed by Sponde, or the libations poured after the midday meal. Next were the three Hours of afternoon work – Elete, Akte, and Hesperis, who marked the start of the evening. 

Finally, came Dysis, the goddess associated with sunset. 

The Expanded Hours

This list of ten hours was first expanded with the addition of Auge, as noted. But later sources refer to a group of twelve Hours, keeping the full list of Hyginus and adding in Arktos, or Night.

Later, an even more expanded notion of the Horae appeared, giving two sets of 12 Horae – one of the day, and a second set of the night. And here the evolution of the Horae into the moden hour is nearly complete. We began with goddesses presiding over loosely defined seasons, and ended up with the modern idea of 24 hours in a day, including the familiar breakout of those hours into two sets of 12.

This group of Horae seem to be largely a post-Roman invention, with most available sources dating from the Middle Ages. That makes it perhaps less surprising that, unlike the earlier incarnations, they don’t seem to have distinct identities as goddesses.

They lack individual names, but are simply listed out numerically as the First Hour of the Morning, Second Hour of the Morning, and so on, with the pattern repeating for the Horae of the Night. And while there were visual portrayals of each of them – the Eighth Hour of the day is depicted as wearing a robe of orange and white, for example – the notion of Horae as actual beings was clearly diminished by the time this group was devised. 

That is not to say they lacked all spiritual connection, however. Each one of them had a listed association with one of the various heavenly bodies. The First Hour of the Morning, for example, was associated with the Sun, while the Second Hour was tied to Venus.  These same associations continued, in a different order, for the Hours of the Night.

Conclusion

The Horae were part of the highly variable and ever-evolving mythology of ancient Greece, of a people who were themselves ever-evolving from simple agrarian roots to an increasingly intellectual and cultured society. The transition of the Horae – from goddesses who oversaw the seasons and dispensed their agricultural gifts to more abstract personifications of the regulated and ordered routines of civilized life – reflects the Greeks’ own transition from farmers watching the sky and seasons to a cultural stronghold with a rich, organized daily life. 

So when you look at a clock face, or the time on your phone, remember that the ordering of the time you’re tracking – and the word for “hour” itself – began with a trio of agricultural goddesses in ancient Greece – just another part of that formative culture that has stood the test of time.

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